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1911: The Great Unrest Comes to Horwich

Joyce Whitehead
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AT FIRST sight Horwich seems an unlikely place in which to find pioneering initiatives in forms of industrial action. Although it is an industrial town and has been a railway town for nearly 100 years, it is not a place one readily associates with militancy, nor with riotous behavious. Horwich Loco Works has had, for the greater part of its existence, good industrial relations, under both private and public ownership. The most recent localised strike at Horwich Works was as long ago as 1973, and that was itself the first since 1946. Yet in 1911 the Works was paralysed by a strike lasting nearly nine weeks, the longest in its history, and at one point feelings ran so high that there was a full-scale riot. Hundreds of extra police were drafted into town during those weeks.

Moreover, and most importantly, with a historical significance that extends beyond Horwich itself, the Horwich strikers of 1911 can be said, in a sense, to have pioneered the sit-in, a familiar tactic nowadays. They developed, at any rate, as an industrial tactic, a new, and then possibly unique form of industrial action—the 'stay-in' strike—a form, and precursor, of the sit-in. Horwich Loco Works is, at the time of writing, having to fight hard for its existence. But although the town and the Works has had a mainly peaceful history, this is not the first time the Horwich workers have had a fight on their hands. Their forebearers of 1911 had to struggle too.

Although the Horwich strike of 1911 had many unique features and was an independent action, it took place at a time of great industrial unrest throughout the country, besides which the so-called "winter of discontent'' of 1979 looks very small beer indeed. It was of such an extent and over such a long period of time that historians now call the years 1910-1914 the "labour unrest'' years. There was also rioting in many places, including Liverpool, and troops stationed all over the country, including Manchester and Salford. There were gunboats in the Mersey. The spirit of the times so alarmed the Establishment that there were fears of revolution.

Many reasons have been advanced for this general mood of rebellion, and the question is very complex, but the economic background to the period was one in which the British economy was still expanding, but not as fast as formerly, and wages were not keeping pace with inflation, so that working people were experiencing a net fall in their real wages. It was also a time of great industrial and technical change, and a time when other countries were catching up on Britain by industrializing themselves, so that British industrialists were becoming anxious about foreign competition and seeking economies and ways of making their industries more efficient. It all sounds very familiar to the modern reader.

The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company, which owned Horwich Works, was as much influenced by the trends of the time as other firms, and in addition felt squeezed between*rising costs and artificially compressed charges, for an Act of Parliament of 1894 had placed restrictions on the railway companies' ability to raise their rates. It was therefore not altogether surprising that the L & Y Company should seek economies and experiment with new methods of working. But in those days on the railways, consultation with workpeople was unheard of; indeed, the railway companies would not even recognise trade unions at all. Meanwhile, notwithstanding the quest for efficiency, railways were still highly profitable enterprises, and railway employees among the most exploited of workers. The L & Y, moreover, paid among the lower rates of wages to its employees; its wage levels were well down on the scale of railway company wages. [1]

At the turn of the century J.A.F. Aspinall, the General Manager of the L & Y, sent delegations to America to study new, 'scientific' methods of working, [2] and in 1911 the Company introduced work-study and other new working practices to Horwich Works without any attempt to explain them to the workforce or compensate them for any loss of earnings they might involve. In addition, it seemed, the men were already experiencing cuts in their piecework prices, while a number of other grievances, including especially the low wages paid to the unskilled labourers, had rumbled on for years. The constant surveillance of work processes by time-and-motion men with stopwatches was clearly bitterly resented, not only for the anomalies and injustices and the 'dog-eat-dog' atmosphere it gave rise to, but as an affront to human dignity and akin to slavery, especially as, the workers complained, the time-and-motion men swore at them. There was also the feeling that the reduced earnings the men were experiencing were paying the wages of these non-productive "slave-drivers''. Another new practice that caused resentment was the system of checking in at the gate, a primitive form of clocking-in, and this was all the more disliked because the men were not paid from the moment they entered the premises but only from the moment they arrived at their workbenches and began working. In addition to the general grievances that were widely spread throughout the Works, individual workshops and groups of workers had grievances of their own which they added to the list of demands (see Appendix). As the Bolton Journal and Guardian put it, "The dissatisfaction first began with one complaint but now, we understand, it has grown into many complaints, all of which the men demand righted,'' and as the Bolton Evening News summarised it, these could be put in a nutshell as "complaints of injustice, terrorizing, price cutting and speeding up.'' When deeply resented new work methods, which appeared to drive the men like slaves or automatons, were combined with effective cuts in earnings it was more than flesh and blood could stand, and when the Company refused even to deal with the men's trade union representatives, an explosion of militant action could hardly be unexpected.

The men presented their demands on July 27th after weeks of secret union meetings, and between July 28th and August 2nd they attempted to negotiate with management about them, but to no avail. The employers made "certain concessions'', including a proposal for a "piecework committee", but they were not enough to satisfy the men, "because the management had not abolished checking (clocking in) and clocking (workstudy), and had not recognised their trade union officials." Meanwhile rumours of a strike were flying about the town and, the Journal reported, "the fever increases daily and almost hourly by many anxious workers." On August 1st the Gasworkers' and General Labourers' Union, which represented those of the labourers who were organized, took an important initiative in publicising, by a leaflet, two mass meetings that were to take place that day; doubtless the important part the Gasworkers played in helping to organise the strike was influential in the decision to add the claim for a labourers' minimum wage to the list of demands, a week into the strike. Also on August 1st, the men issued a public statement of their demands and grievances. At the evening meeting on that day, the decision to stop work on Thursday was taken; the resolution was passed unanimously and greeted with cheers.

The first day of the strike, Thursday August 3rd, created a sensation, "a sensation win the world of strikes", as the Journal described it, for it took the form of a 'stay-in' strike in which the men simply downed tools and stood at their benches and work places without working. It cannot be called a sit-in, as the men did not sit down, nor an occupation, for there was no attempt to take over the factory, but it was surely a fore runner of this kind of industrial tactic, in which workers take strike action without leaving the workplace, and such a thing was unknown at the time; indeed, in the history of trade unionism, actions of this type are not recorded before the 1920s. It is perhaps hard for us, who are accustomed to hearing about such things, to imagine the effect it had in Horwich, and would have created more widely had it been more widely known, but it is worth quoting at length from the Journal to try to convey some idea of the amazement it caused. The paper reported:

There was a remarkable development during the day, the men proceeding to their various branches (i.e. departments), but not to work. We are informed the men stood idle at their posts, and though they again returned to the works in the afternoon, they did not start. At 12.30 p.m. Police Sergeant Dunion entered the works and went in the direction of the men's working quarters... It had been an extraordinary sight, said an eyewitness, to see, in the various departments of the works, non-union and union men acting in absolute harmony in laying down their tools and standing idle at their benches and machines... The men's attitude was of confidence... After dinner... the men returned to the works at the call of the 'buzzer' but no efforts to continue active work were made... the state of affairs resembled a quiet game of cards—men v. company... Each side appeared to be waiting for the other to move. Eventually the railway company took action, and a placard was exhibited in works during the afternoon stating that unless the men declared what their intentions were, there would be a general lockout at six o'clock this (Friday) morning. At 5.30 p.m. the men between 4,000 and 5,000 of them—went straight from the works to a mass meeting behind the Mechanics' Institute, and in the space of three minutes it was decided not to state their intentions. This is tantamount to declaring in favour of a lockout.

Needless to say, the men's unusual action caused much excitement in the town, and the following week the Journal was referring to it as ''that memorable day, the like of which has never been known before in the history of Horwich. "

The following day was the first day of more conventional strike action. Some men had simply stayed outside the Works since the previous day; now others joined the strike and were greeted with ''lusty cheering from the inside of the works which was immediately answered by cheering from those outside.". Inside ''The buzzer went as usual, but a curious silence prevailed." The reporter found himself listening for the familiar sounds of the clang of hammers, the hiss of steam and so on, ''but no such sound spoke of resumed work to those outside."

For the next few days there were no remarkable developments, but in the following week, the first full week of the strike, there were some disturbances. The evidence is the strikers' families and sympathisers took a greater part in them than the strikers themselves, and a leading part seems to have been played by women and children. The Journal reported how, on hearing that a foreman was about to leave the Works, a crowd, ''acting on impulse, immediately rushed off in the direction pointed out by several women," and under the headline ''HOSTILE ATTITUDE OF WOMEN", described how ''a large concourse of women and children gathered" and ''hissed, booed and yelled sarcastically at the foreman." In another demonstration a crowd ''of huge dimensions" greeted a blackleg worker with ''Rattles, tins, booing, yelling, cheering (sic) etc." and blocked the traffic in Chorley New Road, which had become "one moving mass of humanity." On this occasion "Many of the women had coloured paper streamers on their heads" and—in a clear allusion to one of the issues of the dispute— "A young boy carried a large clock at the end of a pole. The hands of the clock pointed to 5.30 and this gentle reminder was held within a few yards of the workman all the way to his house."

After this, the town went quiet for a time, and the press paid complement to the strikers' "prevailing good /nature and strict discipline", while the Journal noted that "the disorder which has accompanied the trouble in other towns has been markedly absent in Horwich." By this time there had been serious rioting in Liverpool, with two men killed.

On August 9th the claim for a labourers' minimum wage of £1 a week was formally added to the men's list of demands, although no further talks took place with the employers. On August 11th the management, who had in fact kept the Works open for the first week of the strike, posted a formal lockout notice at the gate. On August 12th a mass meeting considered the possibility of the Horwich men linking up with the railwaymen's national movement, and the rank and file showed some considerable enthusiasm for this, but in the end their leaders advised them against, arguing that "In Horwich they were out for the adjudication of grievances which did not by any means command attention in Liverpool or Manchester." Nevertheless the meeting agreed to send a representative to a mass meeting in Stevenson Square, Manchester. Railwaymen in Liverpool and Manchester were now on strike in the lead-up to the national railway strike.

On August 18th and 19th the national railway strike, the first national railway strike ever, took place. The story of this strike has been well-told elsewhere, [3] and the actions in Liverpool, Manchester and other places were very much bound up with it; similarly the Horwich workers' demand for trade union recognition overlapped with that of other railwaymen, it was a demand that all railwaymen shared. But the Horwich workers had a much longer list of demands, most of them unique to their own situation, and when the other railwaymen went back, on the promise of a Royal Commission to enquire into their grievances, the Horwich men stayed out. The L & Y Company, for its part, offered to apply Clause Four of the national railway settlement (except that it wasn't yet a real settlement at all) to Horwich, but though it appeared to offer consultations between management and men, it fell far short, when read properly, of trade union recognition. The Horwich men, nevertheless, trusting to the result of the Royal Commission, now moved some way towards management and said they would agree to defer the demand for recognition to the Commission and also drop two of their less important demands, but they now took the opportunity to present their claim for the labourers' minimum wage, which had been added to their list but not, up to then, presented to the employers. They also added two other demands, the abolition of the medical examination to which they were subject, and reinstatement after the strike. Critics of the men could argue that they were wrong to add new demands after the strike had begun, but the men were more honest than the railway company, which, though playing along with the Royal Commission, had no intention of recognising the unions, whatever the Commission decided. While the railwaymen were putting their trust in the Royal Commission, a witness from the L & Y was telling the inquiry that he saw no necessity for recognition and that the Company was all the more unwilling to accept it because of its powerlessness to prevent strikes. The witness did not say that the companies would ignore the recommendations of the inquiry, but that was what happened, as events were to prove.

Of course the management refused to entertain the addition of three new demands despite the concessions the men were prepared to make; moreover they insisted that the men's programme be dealt with point by point, piecemeal, with possible arbitration on individual items. The men, however, were equally firm that the programme must be taken as a whole. The situation was once more deadlocked. Meanwhile, the abortive conferences at which these proposals and counter-proposals were made were accompanied by further street disturbances in which "a disorderly crowd", said to be 2,000 strong, "ranged round the town at night, shouting and boohing frightfully." The police sent for reinforcements and about 80 arrived. The mass meeting that evening was the longest yet, and attracted a crowd estimated by the Journal at the incredible figure of 8,000.

In the last week of August there seemed to be some confusion over who would accept arbitration and who wouldn't, and on which issues appeared that someone had put out a statement that the men were open to arbitration, but their Chairman, Alfred Jones, denied saying this, "there would be no arbitration for them. It was everything or nothing". The Company's position was that they would accept arbitration on the original programme but not on the three extra items, although they might discuss them if the men went back to work first. On the 29th, however, there came a change; the men decided that they would after all, accept arbitration, provided that the three additional items were included. What influenced them into this shift of position is not known, for the leaders gave no reasons to the press, nor did any journalist make even a conjecture as to the reason. Perhaps the increasing distress in the town was a factor. But now the management took an uncompromising line and despite the shift in the men's position, said they would not accept the addition of the three new items, even for arbitration. On 11th September they took an even harder line; they threatened that unless the men notified them within 48 hours of their intention to return to work, "the concessions already granted would be torn up, and that each time they came to negotiate with (the manager) he would give them less."

With the hardening of attitudes, strong emotions came to the fore again, resulting in the worst disturbances to be seen during the strike, and culminating in a riot on September 15th. "Feeling broke the bonds, at two o'clock on the afternoon of the 14th," (reported the Journal), "when a large crowd, including several hundred women, assembled at the main entrance to await the arrival of the foremen." In the ensuing melee a police inspector and "several others" were knocked down, while, when the Company officials and foremen arrived, their hats were knocked off and "football was indulged in with the captured headgear." There was a lot of egg throwing: "A man with a rotten egg took deadly aim, hitting the victim on the ear", and, "innumerable eggs were seen particularly in the hands of women, who used them as missiles." Fights broke out, and the Journal reporter received an accidental blow on the chin. Menacing as the situation was, it was not without humour: "A band of boys who term themselves the "Strike Choir" follow the police when they are in large numbers, singing 'Fall in and follow me'," the Journal reported, and "There was a laughable incident when one constable arrived. A crowd gathered behind him, and sang the popular refrain 'Has anybody here seen Kelly?' "Police reinforcements—there are estimates of between 200 and 400 police in Horwich during the strike—were greeted with cheers. The traffic on Chorley New Road was blocked again, "the road being crowded." And this was the day before the riot!

The next day, rioting in the true sense broke out. It began, again, in the early afternoon, with a crowd chasing a blackleg worker and "arguing with him for several minutes." The Bolton Evening News, under the rather exaggerated and melodramatic headline "ATTACK ON WORKMAN: BLOODSHED IN THE STREET", reported that someone threw a bottle at him "which struck the man on the ear, causing blood to flow freely." The crowd also dropped "missiles" on Company officials and foremen from a bridge. Then the crowd went on to pelt a house "just above the Catholic Schools" with vegetables: "Potatoes, rotten onions and other missiles were thrown. One crashed through a large window. Four other windows were smashed in quick succession, and then the crowd threw at the front windows of the house, and in a comparatively short time these had been demolished. Plants and blinds were knocked down and the doors were bespattered with vegetables." The Bolton Evening News reporter added, "The crowd are devoting the whole of the afternoon to window smashing." In Crown Lane police reinforcements had turned up, and, "Supt. Wilson led 56 police up the street two abreast. The crowd then moved away and about 200 youths formed up in line behind the police, singing 'Fall in and follow me'." At around tea-time the rioters temporarily dispersed, but at 8 o'clock trouble began again when a large crowd stoned the manager, Mr. O'Brien's, house. "The people still remained in the neighbourhood and eventually a crash or two followed, which denoted that glass had been broken somewhere." The crowd then broke into sections, one of which headed towards the police station, but the police dispersed them. "Singing, shouting, blowing of horns could be heard in many parts of the town until about 9.30 "and then peace was gradually restored. As dusk fell and order returned, "Plumbers and joiners were quickly at work before dusk set in. "

The riot was the last great explosion of feeling in Horwich during the dispute and afterwards relative calm reigned again. Against what happened at Liverpool and other places the happenings in Horwich were comparatively mild; although 200-400 police were brought into the town at the time, the Riot Act was never read, whereas in Liverpool it had to be read several times. No one in Horwich was seriously hurt and the troubles lasted little more than a day, two at the most. Of course the men's Committee deplored the violence and issued a statement regretting and dissociating themselves from it and explaining that they had made "every effort to stop such conduct"; the Chairman had followed the young lads around "continually... urging them to desist." At a mass meeting he said "the disturbances were no laughing matter," "he wanted the people to remember they were living in a civilized country", and "Breaking windows would not assist them in any way."

After the riot the stalemate continued, then without warning, a Board of Trade conciliator, D.C. Cummings, arrived in Horwich on September the 20th, in an attempt to mediate. Unfortunately the attempt failed, the three extra demands being the stumbling block as before, although the Company were now prepared to concede a promise of no victimization. Accordingly, Cummings left Horwich and the town "settled down to another spell of waiting," but on the 29th he was back and went into immediate session with the men's Committee. The same evening the Committee, with Cummings, went in to see the management, and the conferences lasted all weekend. It was understood that "the whole of the grievances" was being discussed, "special emphasis being laid on the word 'whole'." This was not all; a special conference on the labourers' minimum wage, and on that only, was held on Monday afternoon. At a mass meeting on the Sunday "the general outlook was of a decidedly optimistic nature" and the Committee were reported to regard the settlement as "somewhat favourable"; at the mass meeting on the Monday the settlement was put to the gathering and approved overwhelmingly with only three dissentients. The men returned to work the next day, Tuesday, October 3rd.

The Bolton Evening News's assessment of the settlement, that "Both parties have climbed down a little", was roughly accurate; it was a compromise, but with the balance slightly in the men's favour. They had by no means got all that they asked for, but they had won a number of substantial improvements; importantly, they had forced the Company to gradually move its position until it had at least accepted arbitration on the labourers' wage claim and discussed the other items, and they had won promises of fairer treatment in future. The end of the strike naturally caused great relief in the town, and, as the Bolton Evening News put it, "made homes happy'', The Journal reported that the children celebrated the settlement by "marching in bands, singing, shouting and hurrahing'', while the adults discussed the news in "practically every street''. The astonishing beginning to the strike was not forgotten; the Evening News referred to it again, calling it "dramatic and unique''.

The strike was incredibly well planned and organised; the 'stay-in' strike was proof of that. Further proof was the elaborate and thorough system of picketing, which was so effective that the Journal devoted a special article to it, a wonderful description and well worth reading, in which the writer observed, "I can safely say it is more systematic than the policing of many of our towns.'' [4] The picketing was conducted in an almost military fashion, with each team of pickets having a 'Captain', and some being equipped with binoculars, with which they scrutinised passing trains for any sign of knobsticks. Another sign of meticulous planning was the Distress Committee, which was formed within two days of the start of the strike, to raise and administer a strike fund. The Journal devoted an article to this too, and paid a glowing tribute to the unity, efficiency and fairness with which the Committee ran its operations, describing how, in order to demonstrate scrupulous justice, and get the fund off to a good start the Committee 'fined' themselves for being late for Committee meetings, beginning by having a friendly argument about whether the Chairman was in his place at the right time! [5] Tram tickets were utilised as relief tickets and receipts for donations and later, to spare the recipients the embarrassment of having to queue, Committee members and helpers undertook to deliver the relief personally to their homes. Early in the strike some of the labourers, the poorest of the workers, returned their tickets, saying they could manage for the time being, so that they could be given to cases they thought worse off than themselves. Altogether, a good deal of unselfishness and personal sacrifice, of money, time and effort was shown.

Another facet of the strikers' organisation was the discipline with which they conducted themselves and on which they were complimented by the press. Most of the trouble that took place in the town was the work of the strikers' supporters and kinsfolk rather than the strikers themselves, although it is probable that some of the younger and more unruly elements among the workmen got carried away and took some part in the disturbances. But the men's leaders always condemned violence and bad behaviour and repeatedly called for good order and admonished demonstrators. Great emphasis was placed on correct conduct. Most of the men supported this disciplined approach and when two "unofficial speakers'' who had gained a reputation as troublemakers and rumour-mongers attempted to speak at a mass meeting, they were "boohed away from Horwich'', as "such unofficial visits are very much resented by the Central Committee as the speakers cause the men to be rather disorderly.'' Pickets behaved with perfect correctness, according to the law. The men's leaders also sought to present a dignified appearance and paid great attention to dress. When , early in the strike, they went into the Works to collect wages due to them, and on deputations to management, they always dressed in their best suits; on one such occasion they also wore lapel badges reading "Keep smiling''. Photographs of pickets and of the Distress Committee in the Journal show very respectable looking gentlemen, of quite a dapper appearance, and before I had read the Distress Committee story, I took the men in the picture to be middle-class gentlemen moved by charitable concern!

One interesting aspect of the strike was the role of women. The Horwich workforce was entirely male, yet in many events that took place, women took a prominent, and sometimes a leading part, particularly in the demonstrations. The Horwich strikers' womenfolk were not content to stay at home simply washing and cooking in preparation for their men's return from picketing or whatever. They also attended the mass meetings, sometimes in large numbers, and even attempted to vote. In one disturbance, women's voices were "heard above all others'' and one speaker at a mass meeting felt it necessary to call on the women "to be ladylike''. The Bolton Evening News reported, "... the women share their husbands' grievances equally and... they appear to assert their right to partake in the dispute.'' Nor was the women's interest in the strike confined to Horwich women whose menfolk were directly involved; at one mass meeting a woman from Bolton, a Mrs. Lloyd, came to speak and shared the platform with the strike leaders, and she was "given a hearty reception.'' She described herself as "one of their own class,'' and told the strikers "to stick out like grim death for a minimum wage of £1.'' "She said the man who worked for less than £1 a week was a big coward.'' The press reports also mention children as taking some part in the events of those weeks, notably in the street disturbances. The Horwich strike was very much a family affair.

The Horwich strikers of 1911 had the overwhelming support of the community and this was by no means confined to the working class or the local townspeople. As now, it was very much a battle between the community and the railway company. Aside from the street demonstrations in support of the strikers, the local clergy—and some from outside the town—spoke at mass meetings, always in support of the strikers' claims. The local theatre proprietor lent his premises free for the indoor mass meetings and donated 5% of his takings to the Distress Fund, and there was a remarkable accord between the political parties in support of the men, when the Conservative candidate for the division shared a platform with the local Labour M.P. (Westhoughton's first Labour M.P.), W.T. Wilson, and said he, "did not regard it as an exorbitant demand that the labourers should receive £1 a week'', and that many shareholders would agree "if they knew and understood the grievances''. Both the Liberal and Conservative clubs took collections for the Distress Fund, and of course there was widespread and consistent support, both moral and financial, from the Labour movement, both inside and outside Horwich. W.T. Wilson, the Labour M.P., spoke many times at the mass meetings. The Tory candidate was not too far wrong about shareholders either: one, a Mr. Grundy of Bolton, speaking at a shareholders' meeting, criticised the Board of Directors and advised them to show a "conciliatory spirit.'' He "wished to utter his protest against the manner in which the men were being treated'' and observed that the men worked under "unfair conditions''. He advocated union recognition, saying, "it was no use at this time of day for a railway company to say they would not receive representatives of the men when those representatives were duly accredited.'' He was a lone voices at the shareholders' meeting, but at least the men had one supporter among the counsels of the Company.

The local press also did the strikers proud. Both the Bolton Journal and Evening News reported the strike largely from the strikers' point of view, although that may reflect the fact that the men were always more ready to give statements and interviews to press than were the representatives of the L & Y. But while the coverage of the issues and negotiations was objective, most of the other reporting leaned towards the men's side, and the articles on picketing and the Distress Committee were wholly sympathetic. Relations with the police fluctuated during the strike, with the public showing hostility on occasions and the men's leaders sometimes making complaints against them, but at other times relations were very good humoured, and interestingly, at the end of the strike, a vote of thanks to the police was passed for a £5 donation they had made to the strike fund. There was even some sympathy towards the Works Manager, Mr. O' Brien, at least early in the strike, for it was felt that the dispute was not his fault and was beyond his power to settle, and a small item in the Bolton Evening News for August 12th reported how he "crossed the road to the pickets and thanked them on behalf of himself and his family for the excellent manner in which they had conducted themselves and also for the kindness they had shown towards him in enquiring after the health of his child who had been suffering from pneumonia.'' The one dissentient from the broad community support for the men was a correspondent to the local papers, signing himself 'Alpha', but he was very much in the minority, and he came in for some mockery at mass meetings. One speaker quipped "'Alpha' would be 'Omega' when the dispute was over."

The strike had diverse effects on the town. It disrupted the regular social life, with the Journal, in its 'Local Chat' column remarking, "The dispute, with its many mass meetings, holds supreme sway in the place; practically every other kind of meeting (the Urban District Council being excepted) has been dropped until further notice.'' Hardship soon began to bite in many homes in the town, despite the valiant efforts of the Distress Committee and other bodies, and a Journal report on "DISTRESS AND HUNGER AT HORWICH,'' described graphically the shortage of food and fuel in the working class district, with children "sufering keenly.'' It went on to report how "little mites clamoured at their mothers skirts for food.'' It told the story of a man whose child had died and who had had to take a collection for its coffin, and of "a little knot of disappointed and downcast children'' who had been turned away from a food distribution centre because they had had no 'tickets'. The Company's business was affected, of course; it was reported that "the fallibility of the engines has been emphasised when they have broken down entirely", and both the local papers told stories of such breakdowns, in which passengers had to wait for relief engines for their trains before they could continue their journey. The situation was further complicated when local branches of ASLEF, the train drivers' union, blacked any engines coming out of Horwich and goods porters at Horwich and Blackrod stations blacked supplies being delivered for the Loco Works.

The question tends to be asked after any dispute, "was it a victory or a defeat for the people involved?" In the Horwich strike it was so much a compromise that the issue is not clear cut. Some people interpret any compromise as defeat, and only consider a victory won if the protagonists get everything they want. In the Horwich strike the balance in the final settlement was in favour of the men in the simple number of concessions granted, although not by a great way, and they did make a general improvement in their working conditions. There was an advance in some of the piecework prices and a promise of no victimisation, although the management tried to renege on this promise later, and were only prevented from doing so by the threat of a further strike. Ultimately the railway companies were forced to recognise the unions, although it took the threat of another national strike, and a vote in Parliament, to make them honour the recommendations of the Royal Commission. Ultimately, too, the arbitrator granted the labourers' £1 a week, which as time had proceeded, had become one of the most important issues in the dispute. The men also got the piecework committee, which in itself held the potential for further improvements. On the other hand, the hated "clocking" and "checking" systems, which had sparked off the strike, were to stay, and so was the almost equally detested medical, although they were to be modified, and the men were promised greater justice and dignity in their treatment in future. There were also some individual workshop grievances that remained unresolved. Perhaps the real test of whether a struggle results in victory or defeat is whether the participants consider the battle to have been worthwhile. Unfortunately the otherwise assiduous newspaper reporters forgot to ask this question, even of the leaders, let alone the ordinary workmen. After the dispute was over, some discontent rumbled on and raised its head again, which calls into question how much the men had gained from the strike. On the other hand, again, there was a general feeling that nothing would ever be quite the same again, and the employers would in future have to show the men some respect.

One important gain was the tremendous unity and strength of purpose the men achieved. Twelve unions, and very many non-unionists were involved in the action, and this was the first time they had ever taken united strike action, all of them acting together, so they had had no previous experience of this exact situation. When one considers this, the high level of organisation, commitment and unity that they demonstrated is extraordinary, even quite breathtaking. The Journal's articles on picketing and the Distress Committee are marvellous tributes to the meticulous efficiency, justice, unanimity and dedication with which the strike organisers carried out their tasks, and the unselfish response of their fellow-strikers, other trade unionists and the community is a testimony to the conviction they felt in the rightness of their cause, and the spirit of solidarity and enthusiasm with which they fought it, which can only compel admiration, even from the most hardened anti-trade unionist.

The men of Horwich, 1911, left two important legacies to their descendants. One was the novel tactic of the 'stay-in' strike, which, interestingly, was adopted again in a one-and-a-half day strike in 1929 and in the 1946 strike (though not in 1973), as if it had become a Horwich tradition. The other was the legacy of unity, determination and ability to organise and to win community support, and the last twelve months, 1982-83, have shown that the descendants have it in good measure. This is just as well, for now they need it as never before.


Since I first wrote this article, we have been overtaken by events. The Horwich campaign of 1982-3 is over, and the end has been a very sad one. The Horwich Loco workers of today may very well feel that it is an ending unworthy of their predecessors of 1911. But they need not reproach themselves thus. The present day workforce was up against harsher and more impersonal economic, social and political forces than faced the men of 1911. The point is that, like their forebears, they fought back, and fought proudly and bravely, along with the whole community of Horwich, whereas others elsewhere would, and have, given in without a fight. The men of 1911 would have understood; not only that, they would have been proud of their descendants for maintaining the fighting tradition of Horwich Loco Works to the end. This may not be of much comfort to those who now face the dole queue, but at least they can hold their heads high. 1 personally am proud to have been associated, in however small a way, with their campaign. Indeed, without my own involvement in it, this article might never have been written.


1 I am indebted for this information to Mr. Tom Wray, Secretary of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Society.

2 Ditto.

3 See the various general histories of the period, but see especially Philip S. Bagwell The Railway men George Allen & Unwin (London) 1963, and J.R. Raynes Engines and Men (a history of ASLEF, but it briefly mentions the strike at Horwich) Goodall & Suddick (Leeds) 1921.

4 Bolton Journal and Guardian, August 18th 1911.

5 Ibid., September 1st 1911.




Bolton Journal and Guardian, July 28th 1911—January 26th 1912.

Bolton Evening News, ditto.


On the 'labour unrest'

George Dangerfield THE STRANGE DEATH OF LIBERAL ENGLAND Capricorn (New York) 1961 edn. Part 2 Chapter 4.

Henry Pelling POPULAR POLITICS AND SOCIETY IN LATE VICTORIAN BRITAIN Macmillan (London) 1979 edn. Chapter 9.

G.D.H. Cole A SHORT HISTORY OF THE BRITISH WORKING CLASS MOVEMENT George Allen & Unwin (London) 1947. Part 3 Chapter 4.

E.H. Phelps Brown THE GROWTH OF BRITISH INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS Macmillan (London) 1959 Chapter 6.

On the general economic and industrial background

William Ashworth AN ECONOMIC HISTORY OF ENGLAND 1870-1939 Methuen (London) 1972 edn.

E.H. Phelps Brown op. cit.

On the national railway strike

See Note 3 above.

For a general, basic chronological history of Horwich Loco Works, see T.H. Foley HORWICH WORKS DIARY — Historic Milestones of Horwich Works (Bolton Central Reference Library).

The author would like to hear from anyone who has recollections, perhaps from their childhood, of the 1911 strike, or who has been told about it by their parents or gransparents. You can write to me at 15 Partington Street, Worsley, Manchester, or ring 061-794 4832.

For their help and encouragement I would like to thank the following people: Paul Salveson, Harry Burke, Ron Hardman, Tom Wray and the staff at Bolton Central Library (reference section) and Horwich Library.

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