The revolution had begun: or so it
seemed when the very sentinels of the State revolted in the late summer of 1918.
"Spirit of Petrograd! The London police on strike!" cried a jubilant
Sylvia Pankhurst, expressing the excitement of other British revolutionaries.
"After that, anything may happen. Not the army, but the police force is
the power which quells political and industrial uprisings and maintains the
established fabric of British society."1 There could not have
been a worse time for this unthinkable strike to happen. The spectre of
revolution haunted Europe as never before; the British working class was flexing
its muscles; and the Great War still raged in Europe. According to one senior
Scotland Yard official, the police were "mutinying in the face of the
enemy".2 Little wonder, then, that the sight of 12,000 furious
Metropolitan constables marching on Whitehall sparked panic among ruling
circles. According to one Government figure of the time, the supposed defenders
of the status quo had surrounded Downing Street with "a very menacing
attitude … [and] made the occupants feel that they were really face to face
with a revolution".3 Would the very heart of the British Empire
be stripped of its defences at a time of such crisis?
So began the year-long struggle
between the State and its supposed protectors, as the police threatened to
defect to an increasingly assertive labour movement. Under the leadership of
the National Union of Police and Prison Officers, militantly class-conscious
policemen conspired to overturn their role as the subservient body of the
State. The Union’s president promised that the "the day when the
Government can use the police forces as a tool against any other section of the
nation is past".4 Instead, the police would form an alliance
with the working class. However, the State had no intention of losing their
main domestic organ of power, especially at a time when revolution seemed so
firmly on the agenda. Lloyd George, the prime minister of the time, summed up
the horror of Britain’s ruling class, and their determination to crush police
trade unionism forever. "Unless this mutiny of the Guardians of Order is
quelled", he solemnly told the Conservative leader Bonar Law, "the
whole fabric of law may disappear. The Prime Minister is prepared to support
any steps you make take, however grave, to establish the authority of social order."5
Indeed, the authority of social
order was under attack all over Europe. The October Revolution and the horrors
of war sent a revolutionary wave hurtling across the continent. Socialist
revolution appeared as a distinct possibility not only in defeated countries
such as Germany and Hungary, but also in victorious Italy. As labour historian
Chris Wrigley wrote: "At the end of the First World War the old ruling
classes of Europe felt that they faced the precipice. Winners or losers, the
old social systems were threatened with being engulfed by the economic and
social forces fermented by war."6 Britain was not immune to
this bubbling discontent. An unprecedented mobilisation of an increasingly
assertive working class had occurred during and after the war. Union membership,
which numbered 2.6 million in 1910, had more than tripled to nearly 8 million
by 1919. The growing organisation of the working class was accompanied by
rising militancy. In 1918, around six million working days were lost to
strikes, a figure that increased nearly six-fold in 1919. Those taking
industrial action between 1917 and 1919 included miners, railway and transport
workers, who threatened co-ordinated action under the banner of the Triple
Alliance; as well as engineers, bakers, cotton spinners and munitions workers.
Worryingly for the Government, the authority of moderate trade union leaders
was undermined as local shop stewards took direct action. As Lloyd George’s
adviser Tom Jones explained in February 1919: "Much of the present difficulty
springs from the mutiny of the rank and file against the old established
leaders."7 Largely this was a consequence of the wartime
industrial truce that bound the official trade union leadership, a truce that
lost it support among rank-and-file trade unionists.
Discontent did not purely centre on
short-term economic demands, but also resulted from dissatisfaction with the
very structure of society. A report presented to the National Industrial
Conference by trade unionists in April 1919 stated that: "With increasing
vehemence Labour is challenging the whole structure of capitalist industry as
it now exists", rather than simply protesting the "more special and
small grievances which come to the surface at any particular time".8
Furthermore, following the sacrifices of millions of British workers, labour
expected to reap the rewards: "It must be remembered that throughout the
war the workers have been led to expect that the conclusions of hostilities
would be followed by a profound revolution in the economic structure of
society."9 In the aftermath of conflict, this disenchantment
escalated rather than subsided as the restraints of wartime patriotism lifted.
The First Lord of the Admiralty, Walter Long, accurately summed up the mood of
the time when told Lloyd George that: "There is no doubt that throughout
the country – for aught I now, throughout the world – there is a widespread
feeling of unrest which is not by any means confined to one particular
Certainly, it is important not to
overstate the nature of this unrest. For example, the Labour Party did not
withdraw from the wartime Coalition until after the Armistice, and remained
reformist in character and five years away from forming a Government. Even so,
fear of revolution in the face of widespread industrial militancy and the
spectre of Bolshevism was hardly groundless paranoia on the part of the British
State. Kingsley Martin, who fought during World War I, believed that: "The
only time in my life when revolution in Britain seemed likely was in 1919."11
Movements such as the Clydeside general strike drew inspiration from Russia,
and even "appeared to have some of the features of the soviets set up in
Russia in early and mid 1917". Revolutionary sentiment was also prevalent
in northern English industrial towns. An independent study of 816 working-class
people in Sheffield in 1919 found that only one person denounced talk of
revolution. One was even quoted as claiming: "The men want to have a
complete revolution in the present system…."12
Little wonder that the Government
discussed revolution as a distinct possibility. An alarmist Long warned Lloyd
George, unless the Government took firm steps, "there will be some sort of
a revolution in this country … before twelve months are past".13
For members of the propertied classes, the combination of widespread labour
unrest and the birth of Bolshevism was a lethal concoction that threatened
violent revolution. As one editorial in The Times in early 1919 claimed:
"The real meaning of the present disorders is that, under cover of an
ordinary dispute between employers and employed, an attempt is being made to
start the ‘class war’", and that striking workers were being used by
intellectuals "who desire to emulate Lenin and Trotsky and the ‘Spartacus’
leaders in Germany."14
The labour historian James Cronin is
correct to assert that, despite the troubles, the British "governing elite
never lost the capacity or will to rule".15 However, this was
not beyond the realms of possibility throughout much of 1918-19. Faced with
progressively bolder attacks on the existing social structure, the State relied
on the existence of a loyal police force capable of defending the status quo.
As the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Edward Henry, warned a
senior government minister as early as 1916: "Troublous times are ahead,
and it is particularly important to keep the police happy."16
Because of its failure to provide an adequate living wage, the Government
nearly lost control over the main arm of the state apparatus. Prior to the
August 1918 strike, the wages of a policeman were "assessed on the basis
of that of an agricultural labourer or an unskilled worker".17
Although the cost of living during the war had more than doubled, policemen had
received an increase in pay of only three shillings since 1914, and a war bonus
of 12 shillings. Even after the pay settlement that ended the 1918 strike, a
Metropolitan constable with 5 years service who was married with two children
received £3 7s, compared with an unskilled labourer who received £3 8s. This
disparity triggered widespread resentment. As one City policeman put it during
the 1918 strike, "we policemen see young van-boys and slips of girls
earning very much more money than we get, and – well, it makes us feel sore".18
The impoverished police force was
antagonised by the repeated failure of the Government to address the rapid
decline of their real wages. Thomas Scott, NUPPO’s London organiser, accurately
summed up the frustration of many policemen during the strike: "We are
sick of being messed about and being told that they are being considered,
considered, considered."19 The Conservative Home Secretary, Sir
George Cave, overlooked demands for increased pay from MPs throughout the war.
Even a month before the strike, Cave told Parliament that although the question
of a pay increase was "under consideration", he did not "expect
to be able to announce [his] decision in the matter for some little time".20
Despite declining real wages, duties expected of the police increased in
wartime. Although denouncing the strike as a mutiny, the City of London Police
Commissioner Sir William Nott-Bower conceded: "It was hard for many men to
keep body and soul together, and as the War proceeded, these hardships became
accentuated."21 Leave was restricted to one day a fortnight,
and there were claims that some policemen worked an average of 96 hours for a
week’s pay.22 Although 1,200 pensioners were recalled for service
and 30,000 volunteer Special Constables were enrolled, these were no replacement
for over four thousand of the best policemen who had joined the armed forces.
Faced with poverty and deteriorating
labour conditions, the police were inspired by the militancy of other workers.
As The Times pointed out, "millions, doing less responsible work,
have already received far larger advances than the £1".23
Successful industrial action served as an example to the increasingly
impoverished police. In the words of NUPPO: "Slowly, economic pressure
forced that stereotyped mind into realising that he would have to get a move on
somehow; the industrial labourers were reaping big wages while his remained
stationary."24 In other words, the traditional conservatism of
the police (described by the Police Union as formerly "a somewhat
conservative class"25) was overcome as a result of their social
and economic decline into the lowest sections of the working class. Telegrams
sent by local superintendents as the strike gathered pace throughout the
morning of 30 August 1918 demonstrate that insufficient pay was the main
catalyst behind police militancy. For example, the superintendent of
"M" division informed Scotland Yard that his constables "have
refused to go out on duty on the grounds that they are not receiving a living
wage".26 Reports written by the superintendents two weeks after
the unrest concurred with this assessment. One police striker interviewed in
"R" division underlined the extent of poverty facing the police,
claiming that "it has been very serious for us this last few months going
about trying to get food".27
Despite mounting discontent, there
was no representative machinery through which the police could voice their
demands. Even so, police trade unionism had little success before the force was
radicalised by the privations of war. An early attempt to form a police
federation attracted the interest of only around a hundred policemen. When
Police Orders proscribed the Metropolitan Police Union in 19 December 1913, it
enjoyed very limited support.28 The Union had been formed in 1913 by
a dismissed inspector, John Syme, who became a cause célèbre in the
labour movement for his campaign against tyranny in the police force. However,
his long-running campaign for reinstatement – which led to his repeated
imprisonment for libel – was of little interest to the rank-and-file. Before
his second spell of imprisonment in 1916, the renamed National Union of Police
and Prison Officers had only around 200 Metropolitan police members.
Nevertheless, as conditions
worsened, the Union attracted the sympathy of growing numbers of policemen.
This was partly facilitated by a change of leadership and State repression.
Syme was removed as Union secretary in May 1917, and for years would bitterly
refer "to that weapon I was treacherously robbed of by Charles Duncan and
a few similarly treacherous policemen".29 Thereafter, NUPPO was
dominated by serving policemen such as James Marston (who became Union
president) and Thomas Thiel. Both were committed socialists. As it expanded,
NUPPO and its membership faced relentless persecution from the police
authorities. Modifications to Police Orders in November 1916 banned the
propagation of any reports "likely to prejudice the recruiting,
discipline" of the police, as well as the attendance of any meeting
"held with the object of inciting Police Officers to
insubordination".30 Several were dismissed as a result,
including seven policemen in February 1917 for attending a NUPPO meeting. With
support growing for NUPPO as the only organisation representing the grievances
of the police, persecution of trade unionists only fuelled discontent.
Moreover, repression failed to defeat the Union, which spread beyond London to
the provinces. For example, by early 1918 a membership of three hundred was
reported in the Manchester police force alone.31
The Union’s stated purpose, to
"improve the conditions of the Services particularly in Pay and
Pension" appealed to an increasingly impoverished force. Furthermore, its
motto of "Tyranny is not discipline" appealed to those discontented
with the arbitrary nature of police authority, particularly returning soldiers
who, after being subjected to the horrors of the trenches, were less tolerant
of authoritarian discipline. Around 40% of Metropolitan and Liverpool policemen
who participated in the 1919 strike for union recognition were former soldiers.32
The dismissal of Constable "Tommy" Thiel for Union membership on 25
August 1918 was, as NUPPO stated, "the straw that broke the camel’s
back"33 in a force resentful of its impoverishment, lack of
representation and its autocratic regime. The list of demands issued to the
Government on 27 August 1918, including the increase of the war bonus from 12s.
to £1 and its conversion to permanent wages, and a new war bonus of 12.5% (as
had been granted to other workers) inevitably appealed to the rank-and-file.
Despite this threat, the distance between the rank-and-file and the authorities
was highlighted by the fact that two days before most of the Metropolitan
Police went on strike, a meeting of superintendents "had reported that all
was well with the force".34 By 31 August 1918, around 12,000
Metropolitan police constables were on strike.
Rather than settling the dispute,
the terms offered by Lloyd George’s Government set the stage for a year-long
struggle between police and State. Although the pay demands were largely
conceded, and (with the exception of a conscientious objector) all policemen
dismissed for Union membership were readmitted, the question of recognition was
fudged. Lloyd George himself met the Union delegation the following day, but
crucially informed them that he "could not in war time sanction
recognition of a Police Union".35 Although the Armistice was
only two months away, it was widely believed the war could last another year,
and the Union believed the authorities meant that recognition would be granted
in peacetime. The President of the London Trades Council even informed
demonstrating policemen after meeting Lloyd George that: "the Prime
Minister gave you recognition."36 In a typical illustration of
the Union’s position on the issue, its magazine later wrote: "Policemen
returned to duty last August under the impression – deliberately given to them
– that official recognition of their Union was merely deferred for a
time."37 The Union was not alone in believing it had been de
facto recognised, for members of the British elite also saw it as such. A
typical example was the Earl of Selborn, who stated: "They tell us that
they have not recognised the union, but they have done something that is very
difficult to distinguish from recognition…."38
Although claiming not to have
recognised the Union, the Home Secretary promised that "the men shall be
entitled to join any lawful body which they may wish to join, including a
Police Union. We do not desire to prevent or hamper them from becoming members
of that body".39 The absence of persecution allowed the Union
to flourish. Prior to the 1918 strike, only a small minority were NUPPO
members, but as one superintendent observed, "by active canvassing,
picketing, and in some cases intimidation the membership was considerably
augmented".40 It was claimed that by January 1919, 346 out of
Sheffield’s 366 policemen were members, while 90% of the Metropolitan police
were members by March. In the May 1919 strike ballot, 48,932 members took part.
Although the Government set up Representative Boards as an alternative
mechanism to NUPPO, the Union’s Executive was duly elected, leading NUPPO to
claim that the "name of ‘Representative Board’ is merely camouflage for ‘The
National Union of Police and Prison Officers’".41 Boosted by
its growing strength, NUPPO was increasingly confident. For example, in January
1919, the Union informed its members that "recognition will follow as
surely as the night follows day".42 Naively, it repeatedly
compared itself to other unions that "fought for years, and won. We shall
The Government recognised that the
success of the Russian Revolution had depended on the defection of the
enforcers of the wishes of the State and the consequent inability to maintain
its rule. For example, Lloyd George informed the NUPPO delegation on 31 August
1918 that "the trouble in Russia had arisen to a great extent from the
existence of the union of committees among the soldiers. He considered the police
a semi-military force and that to a great extent the same conditions applied to
them, and he would not have a repetition in this country of what had happened
in Russia".44 The Government had reluctantly negotiated with
the Union and conceded many of its demands simply because it lacked other
options. Not only was it confronted with escalating labour unrest, but Britain
was still at war and the capital had been left defenceless. That the Government
even feared a possible assault was demonstrated by the posting of hundreds of
troops to Downing Street and the Foreign Office "to prevent any attack
upon the residence of the Prime Minister".45
According to historian T.A.
Critchley, the events of August 1918 to August 1919 amounted to "a
struggle between organised labour to secure control over the police in a way
that would encourage their sympathy in industrial disputes, and the
determination of the Government to preserve their neutrality".46
Police radicals, however, did not believe that the Government was struggling to
"preserve their neutrality", but rather to preserve their partiality
towards State and property. NUPPO militants aimed to sever the connection
between police and State in favour of the labour movement, which in of itself
had revolutionary implications. Rather than being an "impartial
adjudicator", the Union believed that the police had "always been the
tool of the employing classes, to defeat the just and legitimate claims of the
worker", and as a result, "the ordinary worker was forced to the conclusion
that the policeman was his natural and avowed enemy".47 NUPPO
radicals were marked by their class-consciousness. As the Union declared to its
members: "we are recruited from the workers; and we shall remain workers,
and united with them for the emancipation of the working masses…."48
Ominously for the ruling class, the Union desired to act on this
class-consciousness by refusing to accept the subservience of the police to the
State. At the National Industrial Conference in March 1919, the Union President,
James Marston, admitted that, "in the past Labour has had the right to
look at the policeman with a not too friendly eye, owing to deliberate and
persistent official misdirection in the time of Labour troubles".49
In front of the Prime Minister himself, Marston declared that no longer would
the police be used to repress workers. As Thiel later wrote in a journal with
revolutionary inclinations, the ruling class realised "that they were …
losing what has been in the past a tool that had for years been used for
strike-breaking". Moreover, "one of the reasons why the Union was set
up was because the men themselves resented being forced to do this blackleg
In other words, one of the main
purposes of the Union was to detach the police from their role as a tool of the
capitalist State used to oppress the working class, in favour of alliance with
the labour movement. There were good reasons for such a revolutionary position
to gain widespread support among a body like the police. Because the State had
ignored the deteriorating conditions of policemen and attempted to repress
their sole representative organisation, they had little option but to seek the
support of organised labour. As the Union put it: "Who drove the Services
into the arms of Labour? Nothing but the callous indifference to all appeals,
both in and out of the House of Commons…."51 As a result,
NUPPO affiliated to numerous trades councils, as well as the Trade Union
Congress and the Labour Party. One appeal to trade unions declared that,
"the Government, aided by the Capitalistic Press, has made a series of
blows at the Trade Union movement of this country, the latest of which is an
effort to smash" NUPPO. This explicitly placed the Police Union in the
industrial fraternity, and attempted to manipulate fears of other trade unions
that without swift action, the Government would also repress them. Furthermore,
the appeal recognised that because the Union "declined to be alienated
from the workers", the State desired its destruction. Crucially, it also
added that "unless the whole of Organised Labour act at once energetically"
to gain recognition of NUPPO, "the opportunity of cementing the bonds of
friendship which of late years have grown between the services and the workers
will be irretrievably lost".52 In other words, support was
sought from the labour movement with the promise that, if the Union was saved,
a police service would exist that was sympathetic towards the working class. If
the Union were to be purged, then the police would revert to their traditional
status as an enemy of the labour movement, or "a weapon wielded by the
capitalist class in order to thwart the legitimate aims and demands of the
The State risked losing control of
the police force to the labour movement at a time when working-class militancy
was more threatening to the capitalist status quo than ever before.
Between the first and second strikes, the Government was unable to rely on the
police to repress labour unrest. Scotland Yard’s head of intelligence, Basil
Thomson admitted in December 1918 that, "it would not take very much in
the midst of serious labour disturbances, carried on with the sympathy of the
Police, to do enormous damage to the credit of the country".54
In March 1919, General Macready – the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police
force – informed the Home Office that "in case of labour trouble … I
could not depend on the force". According to Macready, "the influence
of the hostile Representative Board" – effectively the Union executive –
"was still powerful enough to paralyse police action in the event of the
force being called upon to quell labour riots". In other words, the Union
(which Macready described as a "Soviet") had partially succeeded in
stripping the police of its role as the chief arm of the state apparatus. As
Macready added: "If the country had been free of labour unrest the
question of the police would not have been so difficult to solve…."55
In the midst of unprecedented working-class unrest, the existence of a loyal
police force was crucial. The State could not even rely on the part-time
Special Constables as substitutes. During the strike, "Special Constables
with trade union sympathies were frankly on the side of the strikers",56
a claim endorsed by numerous subsequent police reports which reported that,
"had the strike continued, no doubt they all would have refused
The notion that police trade
unionism was part of an attempt at a revolutionary seizure of power was common
throughout the British elite. In a typical example, one Evening Standard
editorial denounced the Union as "a sort of police Soviet" that was
"like a Soviet system in the army … the shortest cut to general
disorganisation".58 The rise of Soviets in the Russian Imperial
Army was fresh in the mind of the British elite who feared that NUPPO
represented a very similar phenomenon, opening the way for the disarmament and
subversion of the state apparatus. As The Times put it: "The police
are the greatest obstacle to the promoters of disorder…. To get control of
the police became necessary for their plans, and they have come pretty near
success. They may succeed yet…."59 Establishment figures such
as Lord Whittenham could not believe that the police "would have taken the
extreme step that they took" unless they had been driven on by "the
enemy in the midst and Bolshevism".60
Although socialists such as Sylvia
Pankhurst and Harry Pollitt were enthusiastic about the police struggle, others
believed that the State would simply resort to using the army instead. The
Socialist Standard, the organ of the Socialist Party of Great Britain,
argued in August 1919 that even if the police gained recognition, "the
simple and inevitable result must have been the increased use of bayonets
instead of batons in industrial disputes. The masters have more strings than
one to their bow".61 However, the military was also
increasingly affected by unrest. According to Kingsley Martin, soldiers
"began to talk ominously, in whispers, about looking forward to shooting their
officers when they go home", and claimed that only the arrival of American
reinforcements prevented British mutinies during wartime.62 After
the cessation of hostilities, the British army mutinied at Calais and Boulogne,
demanding swift demobilisation. Furthermore, the British elite feared growing
radical consciousness in the ranks of the Army. During the Clyde strike in
January 1919, General Childs warned the Cabinet that in the past, "we had
a well-disciplined and ignorant army, whereas now we had an army educated and
With Army unrest growing, the ruling
class were concerned that a victory for police militants would encourage
soldiers to follow suit. During the 1918 strike, soldiers sent to protect
Government buildings fraternised with the thousands of striking policemen who
had invaded Whitehall. For example, according to one newspaper account:
"Strikers held the soldiers’ rifles as they dismounted, and there were
hearty cheers."64 Lloyd George was even informed that the
Grenadier Guards were openly declaring that they would refuse to obey orders to
disperse the striking policemen. Following the strike, one British Admiral
predicted that the success of the Police Union would encourage a revolt of the
Navy: "After the police, the next strike will be the Navy! I know the
British sailor to his very core! … the authorities will now have a mutiny as
sure as fate!"65 This fear was also prevalent at the highest
echelons of the Government. Long informed the Prime Minister in late May 1919 that
sailors were "watching the action of the London police very closely, and
that any mistake made here would have very serious consequences among
them….This kind of thing is very infectious; I am sure I need not indicate to
you how grave it would be if anything of the kind became really active in the
This unrest was alleged to be
"previously altogether unknown".67 The situation was so
grave, Long believed, because if NUPPO were to gain recognition then sailors
would demand their own Union. As the Russian and German Revolutions had
demonstrated, the overthrow of the State was made possible by the defection of
those responsible for enforcing its wishes and suppressing its enemies –
particularly the Army. Thus, Long and his colleagues believed that the
elimination of NUPPO was not only necessary to maintain control over the
police, but potentially the loyalty of the armed forces.
Faced with a crisis of revolutionary
implications, the authorities were always committed to the destruction of
NUPPO. As Macready informed the Prime Minister in January 1919: "As
regards official recognition, I can only say that, in my opinion, not only is
it impossible but I believe to be quite impossible for the Union to exist …
if the country is to have an efficient body of Police on whom the Authorities
can absolutely rely."68 Regaining control over the police was
far from simple. The Union was powerful, with around two hundred branches by
January 1919. Although hostile to the Union, The Times was forced to
admit in April 1919 that NUPPO’s leadership, "no matter how much they have
blundered, possess the confidence of their members, the numbers of which are
increasing".69 However, through a combination of repression,
economic concessions, internal police divisions, and the absence of assistance
from the labour movement, police trade unionism was permanently routed
following the failed strike of July 1919.
General Macready had been appointed
as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police after the strike forced the
resignation of his predecessor. Macready – who had previously been charged with
repressing labour unrest in South Wales – recognised that police would think
that he "had been selected in order to dragoon them into submission".70
Between October and February 1919, a battle was waged between the "police
Jacobins" of the Union (through the Representative Board’s executive
committee) and the Commissioner for control of the police force. The Board
passed resolutions that the General believed were beyond the remit of a force
subservient to authority. For example, one resolution stated that "a
further depletion of the Police Force would probably have an injurious effect
upon law and order in the Metropolitan Police District", to which Macready
responded: "The responsibility for law and order rests upon the
Commissioner and this Resolution is not one that comes within the functions of
the Board."71 Indeed, an important component of this struggle
was over the very nature of the police force. Macready was adamant that the
police force should be ruled by top-down military discipline, but the Union
believed in bottom-up democracy. Newly elected Secretary Jack Hayes summed up
the position of the Union on the form it desired the police to take when he
called for the "democratisation of the police force, the ending of
militarism in the Metropolitan Force, the full and complete recognition of the
union, and the closely linking up of the police with organised labour".72
Calls for the ending of militarism were frequent, as was a demand for "a
revolution of ancient and despotic methods in the Services".73
Faced with an intransigent Board
controlled by a Union with a radically different conception of police
discipline, Macready did not have long to wait for an excuse to move against
his rivals. On 24 February 1919, after the Board’s executive committee refused
to accept one of his orders, Macready refused to deal with it any further, and
drew up plans for the election of three different Boards representing
constables, sergeants and inspectors separately.74 However, NUPPO
remained deeply entrenched in the police force. Due to a Union boycott, only
around 50 per cent of the required representatives submitted themselves for
election. As even The Times reported: "It is asserted in official
statements that the Union has captured the machinery of the Representative
Board, but it is clear in the minds of the members of the Police Force that the
Union created the Representative Board and it is the authorities who are
trying, indeed very hard, to gain possession of this form of
representation."75 In other words, the Union had won the right
of representation for the previously voiceless police, and now the authorities
were attempting to restore their domination. Following the dismissal of the
Union-dominated Board, the policy of repression accelerated. On 17 March 1919,
Macready informed the police that the War Cabinet had decided against
recognition, and threatened to dismiss those who remained members. Constable
Spackman was dismissed for advocating the election boycott, and when the Union
threatened to take strike action, Macready stated that any policeman who did
"will be forthwith dismissed from the Force".76 The
Government backed the Commissioner, with the Home Secretary claiming on 28 May
1919 that "At present there is no policemen’s union",77
and insisting that if policemen retained Union membership, "they will then
cease to be policemen".78 The natural climax of this mounting
repression was the legal suppression of the Police Union; and on 8 July, the
Government began to introduce a Police Bill that banned policemen from becoming
"a member of any trade union".79 The prospect of losing
secure employment terrified thousands of policemen, particularly those who
risked a pension that they had only gained after years of toil. Anticipating
the impending failure of the strike movement, one contemporary leftwing journal
aptly described the gravity of unemployment for a policeman: "Bobby is a
man with no other trade in his hands in the vast majority of cases. So the
threat of losing a regular job has special terrors for him."80
Alongside repression, the Government
offered generous economic concessions in order to regain control over the
police forces. Following the recommendations of Lord Desborough’s inquiry into
the pay and conditions of the police force, the Government announced
considerable pay increases on 30 May 1919. A constable’s starting pay, for
example, which had been £1 10s before the war and was £2 3s after the strike,
was increased to a range of £3 10s to £4 10s.81 As one policeman
told a newspaper during the failed strike of 1919: "We have had a great
deal to complain about in the past, and I believe that the last strike helped
us very much, but to-day we are being treated better than at any time since I
joined the force. Our position is quite comfortable now…."82
Furthermore, representative machinery was to be established in the form of the
Police Federation. Amounting to a sort of company union that was much more
limited in scope than NUPPO, it was to be divided by rank and forbidden from
discussing "questions of discipline and promotion affecting
individuals…."83 This certainly did not satisfy large numbers
of policemen. Although the police forces of Sheffield, Manchester and Bristol
declined to strike, they condemned the proposed Federation in August 1919.84
Now that their conditions had been dramatically improved, policemen were
"not prepared to endanger their positions and pension rights to secure
recognition", as The Times put it during the 1919 strike.85
Divisions among the police –
principally between conservatives, moderates and radicals – also contributed to
the Union’s defeat. This partly reflected divisions between lower and higher
ranks. Admittedly, one Union account is overly simplistic in claiming that:
"The lower ranks are unanimous, whilst those in higher positions are
simply sitting on the fence…."86 However, the lower ranks
were more likely to be attracted to the Union. The vast majority of
those on strike in 1918 were Constables, and those Sergeants who took action,
according to one superintendent report, were often "regarded by their
officers as inclined to be unduly familiar with Constables and lax as
disciplinarians". Another report pointed out that: "The attitude of
the whole of the Inspectors was complete opposition to a strike and the notion
of a Union on Trade Union lines." This is an accurate representation of
the "conservative", anti-Union faction of the police, which was
largely confined to the higher ranks. The "moderate" faction
supported the existence of a Union, but opposed affiliation to the labour
movement and often opposed strike action. Once more, such a position largely
drew its strength from higher ranks. According to evidence given by one
Inspector from Leeds to Desborough’s inquiry: "There is, however, a fairly
strong body of opinion in the Service averse from the affiliation of the Police
Union with any outside organisation … a great many do not join the Union for
that reason."87 Although a Sergeant endorsed this claim, a
Constable from Leeds claimed: "the men find that they cannot trust
themselves to the authorities entirely and it is necessary they should remain
affiliated to labour in order to protect their interests."88
During the abortive strike of 1919,
it was moderates and conservatives who generally abstained. Conservatives had
long made their position clear; a group of City policemen in May 1919 denounced
moves towards a strike, which they claimed served "no other purpose than a
political move to cause a revolution in this country".90 Many
moderates opposed the Police Bill, but not to the extent of endorsing strike
action to prevent it becoming law. For example, Bristol Police Union passed a
resolution stating that: "although there are clauses in the Police Bill
which do not meet with our approval, we are of the opinion that they are not of
sufficient gravity to warrant us to withdraw our services, thereby assisting to
plunge the country into the danger of a revolution." A similar resolution
was passed by Manchester, whose secretary added that: "If, in the first
place, the authorities had met the officials of the union this trouble would
never have occurred."91 Thus, thousands of policemen remained
opposed to the Government’s policy, but refrained from strike action because of
the threat of dismissal, economic concessions and, occasionally, opposition to
the Union’s alliance with the labour movement.
Blunders on the part of the Union
leadership also contributed to its destruction. A strike ballot over recognition,
improvements in pay, and the reinstatement of Constable Spackman resulted in a
vote of 44,599 in favour of strike action, and only 4,324 against. However, at
a demonstration at Hyde Park on 1 June 1919, Secretary Hayes declared that the
Union would suspend strike action, claiming that Macready expected action and
had "brought their Guards Regiment to London and got them ready to put in
the police stations, if we strike".92 This demonstrated
weakness, and subsequent economic concessions and successful repression ensured
that the mood moved swiftly against a strike. Macready believed that the
postponement of industrial action was instrumental in allowing him to emerge
victorious, stating: "they committed a tactical error in postponing it for
eight months, when the loyalty of the force enabled me to cope with it without
recourse to the military."93 The authorities had long prepared
for a showdown for the Union. Macready had held a conference with other Chief
Constables in December 1918 on possible measures to be taken, while the
Commissioner of the City Police prepared to use the military to nullify a
strike’s social effects. The Union was no match for the combined resources of
the British Empire.
Recognising its weakness in a
confrontation with the State, the Union had relied on the labour movement to
come to its rescue. The Police Union received enthusiastic support from the
rank-and-file of the labour movement. Prior to the strike, delegates at the
National Union of Railwaymen passed a resolution urging "all workers to
render all possible support to the police in their effort to secure
justice", while the Labour Party Conference of 1919 denounced "the
policy of repression adopted by the Government" and called for "full
and frank recognition of this Union".94 Buoyed by promises of
sympathetic action by other unions, NUPPO believed that it had "unlimited
influence on our side".95 However, the leadership of the labour
movement was less radical. For example, during the 1919 Liverpool police
strike, the local Labour Party was active in "taking all steps possible to
bring out all the trades", and called on the Party Executive Committee
"to exert the full power of Labour on the side of the Police".96
Such support was not forthcoming, for the national Labour leadership opposed
action and had advised NUPPO "not to proceed with the threat to strike,
because it was felt here that the Government was too strong" for the
Union.97 A meeting of trade unionists in Liverpool also declared
"common cause" with the police and called for workers "to cease
work at once, owing to the attack made by the Government against Trade
Unionism".98 Once more, the opposition of the national
leadership ensured that no sympathetic action took place. The sole example of
sympathetic action was in London, where five hundred railway workers at Nine
Elms struck in support of the police. The general secretary of the National
Union of Railwaymen described the action as a "grave mistake", and
without support from the leadership, the strike soon fizzled out. The leader of
the Miners’ Federation would also later clarify that the Triple Alliance
leadership opposed strike action by the police and had been unwilling to offer
The conservatism of the labour
movement’s leadership was not the only factor preventing the rescue of police
trade unionism by organised labour, however. Many workers had long resented the
police for their role as strike-breakers and subsequently lacked an appetite
for taking sympathetic strike action. For example, future Communist leader
Harry Pollitt described an attempt to gain workers’ support for the police
strike as "one of the hardest jobs I ever undertook", as London
dockers asked: "how can you stick up for the coppers? They batoned us down
in the Dock Strike in 1912."100 Similar feelings existed in
Liverpool, where memories of police brutality against a demonstration in
support of striking transport workers on so-called "Bloody Sunday" in
1911 were still raw.
The failure of organised labour to
take sympathetic action sealed the fate of police trade unionism. As a result,
some police abstained from strike action. As one police report admitted on 4
August 1919, "there are a considerable number of waverers, sitting on the
fence waiting to see what action Organised Labour will take".101
Secondly, it ensured that the combined power of labour was not used to save the
Police Union. Even a month after the strike, the Union optimistically believed
that: "Organised Labour in Great Britain pledged itself to support the
Union, and unless that pledge is broken, the Union cannot go down."102
Only by late October 1919 was the Union accepting that there were
"considerable doubts as to whether Organised Labour will rally to the
effectual assistance of our comrades on strike".103 With the
Union abandoned by labour, the full power of the British State could
successfully extinguish police trade unionism forever.
The combination of economic
concessions, repression, Government outmanoeuvring, Union blunders, police
divisions and the failure of organised labour to support the police ensured the
failure of the 1919 strike. Industrial action represented a last-ditch effort
to save the Union as the Police Bill – which proscribed trade unionism in the
police force – was read by Parliament. Only 1,081 Metropolitan policemen went
on strike out of force of over 20,000, and even some members of the Executive
failed to strike. By the second day, the Metropolitan authorities were
sufficiently confident to declare the strike "as having been a complete failure".104
Although 118 Birmingham policemen also joined the strike, only in Merseyside
was the strike a success. According to Macready, this was because of "the
presence of many Irishmen in the force, a class of men who are always apt to be
carried away by any wave of enthusiasm".105 In reality, the
fact that Liverpool policemen were still paid less than ordinary labourers, the
fact the Chairman of the Watch Committee "was dictatorial and hated by the
force", and that the Head Constable was similarly unpopular encouraged
observance of the strike.106 Half the Liverpool police force took
industrial action, triggering widespread looting on the part of hundreds of the
impoverished slum-dwellers. One newspaper claimed: "central Liverpool …
represents a war zone",107 while another account described it
as "rather reminiscent of early occupation days in some of the Cologne
districts".108 Liverpool was put under effective military
occupation as tanks patrolled the streets and three thousand soldiers seized
key public buildings and brutally restored order. Many were injured by
baton-charges, and one looter was shot dead. Demonstrating the extent of
Government fears, a battleship and two destroyers were sent to Liverpool.
Public declarations by trade unionists that looting simply played into the
hands of the State fell on deaf ears, underlining the lack of influence wielded
by organised labour over the city’s lumpen elements. As in London, all striking
policemen were dismissed and replaced within days. As local branches throughout
the country dissolved themselves within days of the strike, and the Police Bill
was passed by Parliament despite the half-hearted opposition of the Labour
Party, it was evident that the Union was utterly defeated.
One key result of the strike was the
dismissal of the most radical faction of the police force. Little wonder that a
key figure in the shop stewards’ movement of the time, J. T. Murphy, believed
that the "strike was provoked by the Government for the purpose of ridding
the police force of radical elements".109 There is ample
evidence that the State intended to purge such elements to ensure the future
loyalty of the police. On the second day of the strike, Macready believed that
the reputation of the Metropolitan Police would only increase now it had been
"purged of these discontented elements",110 while in a
future report he claimed that "the result of this strike was an
undisguised blessing to the Force, as the extreme element disappeared, and from
that moment the Force has steadily improved in efficiency and discipline".111
The City Police Commissioner also welcomed the dismissal of "the whole of
the dangerous agitators",112 while bourgeois newspapers such as
The Times concurred that the movement represented "a purging of the
Metropolitan Force of a troublesome element of discontent rather than a
strike".113 By providing generous economic concessions prior to
proscribing the Union, the authorities were aware that only the most militant
policemen would take industrial action. Their dismissal represented the
elimination of the radical leadership of the police.
Because the constitution of the
Police Federation stated that it would be "entirely independent of and
unassociated with anybody or person outside the police force",114
links between the police and the labour movement were forever shattered. As
historian Stuart Bowers wrote: "Their segregation from the trade unions
was not enforced without difficulty, but it was achieved completely."115
Further separating the police from the working class was its dramatic
improvement in pay and conditions, which were now standardised across the
country. Rather than pay being "assessed on the basis of that of an
agricultural labourer or an unskilled labourer"116 as was
previously the case, the police joined the aristocracy of labour. By 1924,
constables on maximum pay would receive 55-60 per cent more than the earnings
of the average male worker in industry.117 As a result of the newly
privileged economic and social condition of the police, the purge of the radicals,
and its separation from the labour movement, the modern police was created as a
force entirely subservient to the British State and separate from the working
Britain’s rulers were optimistic
that the defeat of police militancy would prove a setback for an increasingly
militant labour movement generally. The Lord Mayor of Liverpool described how
Lloyd George "looked on the Liverpool police strike as perhaps the
turning-point in the Labour movement, deflecting it from Bolshevist and Direct
Actionist courses to legitimate Trade Unionism once again. Had Liverpool been
wrongly handled, and had the strikers scored a success, the whole country might
have very soon been on fire".118 The British elite generally
shared Lloyd George’s optimism. For example, The Times, in an August
1919 editorial entitled "A Turning Point", claimed that now strikes
had begun to fail, "a change has set in".119 However,
labour militancy continued with a similar intensity over the next two years.
Although eight million days less were lost to industrial action in 1920 than
1919, over twice as many were lost in 1921 as 1919. Even so, during the
industrial action of 1919-1921, and especially during the General Strike of
1926, the British State could rely on a loyal police force in its dealings with
the labour movement. The State has maintained this achievement to this very
The hundreds of policemen who went
on strike in 1919 paid a heavy price. The State stayed true to its word and
ensured their permanent dismissal from the police force, without any pension
rights. Some had been only weeks away from claiming their pension. Poverty
awaited them. By 1924, out of 2,400 strikers, only 200 had found employment
suitable to their qualifications. Hope was kept alive only by the solidarity of
the labour movement, and the promise of repeated Labour Conferences to
immediately reinstate the strikers as soon as a Labour Government was elected.
This hope was cruelly disappointed upon the election of Ramsay MacDonald’s
minority Government of 1924, which betrayed these promises. Although the former
Secretary of the Union, Jack Hayes, was elected as a Labour MP and continued to
lobby on behalf of the policemen within Parliament, the strikers had lost their
battle. However, they remained self-described "stalwarts of the socialist
movement", united by the memories of a struggle that had sparked panic
among the rulers of the British Empire. On 30 June 1953, the Association of
London Police Strikers issued its last report: "Although perhaps we do not
wish to record the fact, it still remains that it is 34 years since we first
took the plunge for freedom and the right to organise and we have grown old. We
must not forget to bear that truth in mind and dedicate ourselves to the help
of others in need through age and infirmity, so that when the last shall come
we shall be gratified in the thought that we stood by each other to the
1. Workers’ Dreadnought, 7
2. Pall Mall Gazette, 30
3. G.A.R. Riddell, Lord Riddell’s
War Diary 1914-1918 (London, 1933), p.347.
4. The Times, 4 March 1919.
5. HL (House of Lords), LG (Lloyd
George Papers) F/30/3/8 (Lloyd George to Bonar Law, 27 January 1919).
6. C. Wrigley, The British Labour
Movement in the Decade After the First World War (Loughborough, 1979), p.1.
7. J.E. Cronin, Labour and
Society in Britain 1918-1979 (London, 1984), p.21.
8. Reports from Commissioners,
Inspectors and Others, 1919, xxiv (24), p.6.
9. Ibid., p.2.
10. HL, LG F/33/2/46 (Walter Long to
Prime Minister, 28 May 1919).
11. K. Martin, Father Figures
(London, 1966), p.88.
12. Cronin, Labour and Society,
13. HL, LG F/33/2/3 (Long to Lloyd
George, 9 January 1919).
14. The Times, 1 February
15. J.E. Cronin, ‘Coping with
Labour, 1918-1928′, in J.E. Cronin and J. Schneer, eds, Social Conflict and
the Political Order in Modern Britain (London, 1982), p.119.
16. PRO (Public Records Office),
MEPO (Metropolitan Police Archive) 2/662 (Henry to Troup, 9 September 1916).
17. Reports from Commissioners,
Inspectors, and Others, 1919, xxvii (27), p.718.
18. Westminster Gazette, 30
20. Hansard, 5th Series,
1918, cviii. 1839.
21. W. Nott-Bower, Fifty-Two
Years A Policeman (London, 1926), pp.283-284.
22. Reports from Commissioners,
Inspectors, and Others, 1920, xxii (22), p.763.
23. The Times, 31 August
24. Police and Prison Officers’
Magazine, 2 July 1919.
25. Ibid., 30 April 1919.
26. PRO, MEPO 3/257A (Telegram from
Superintendent of ‘M’ Division, 7.50am 30 August 1918).
27. Ibid. (Kennington Lane
Station, Superintendent of ‘L’ Division, 13 September 1918).
28. The Times, 20 December
29. LHASC (Labour History Archive
and Study Centre), CP (Communist Party Archive) IND/MISC/20/09 (Syme to
Lindsay, 28 December 1920).
30. PRO, MEPO 3/254 (Police Orders,
Order 27, 24 November 1916).
31. Manchester Guardian, 13
32. LHASC, CP, IND/MISC/20/09
(Summary of Military and Naval Records of Police Strikers, 22 October 1919).
33. Police and Prison Officers’
Magazine, 2 January 1919.
34. N. Macready, Annals of an
Active Life (2 vols, London, 1924), i, 301.
35. The Times, 2 September
36. Daily Chronicle, 2
37. Police and Prison Officers’
Magazine, 23 May 1919.
38. Hansard (Lords), 5th
series, 1918, xxxi. 912.
39. Hansard, 5th series,
1918, cx. 1001.
40. PRO, MEPO 3/257A (Superintendent
of Hammersmith Station, ‘T’ Division, 13 September 1918).
41. Ibid., 2 January 1919.
42. Police and Prison Officers’
Magazine, 2 January 1919.
43. Ibid., 25 June 1919.
44. The Globe, 2 September
45. PRO, MEPO 3/257A (Assistant
Commissioner, 31 August 1918).
46. T.A. Critchley, A History of
Police in England and Wales (London, 1978), p.187.
47. Police and Prison Officers’
Magazine, 2 July 1919.
48. Ibid., 16 July 1919.
49. The Times, 4 March 1919.
50. Solidarity, September
51. Police and Prison Officers’
Magazine, 20 August 1919.
52. LHASC, LP (Labour Party Archive)
CA/ADM/57 (‘An appeal for the Police and Prison Officers’ trade union’, 10 June
53. Police and Prison Officers’
Magazine, 2 January 1919.
54. PRO, CAB (Cabinet Papers) 24/71
(Basil Thomson, 2 December 1918).
55. Macready, Annals, ii,
56. The Times, 1 August 1918.
57. PRO, MEPO 3/257A (Superintendent
of Limehouse Station, ‘K’ Division, 14 September 1918).
58. Evening Standard, 13
59. The Times, 2 June 1919.
60. Hansard (Lords), 1918,
5th series, xxxi. 900.
61. The Socialist Standard,
62. Martin, Father Figures,
63. PRO, CAB 23/9 (Cabinet minutes,
29 January 1919).
64. Daily Express, 2
65. J.A.F. Fisher, Fear God and
Dread Nought: The Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher of
Kilverstone (3 vols, London, 1959), iii, p.550.
66. HL, LG F/33/2/46 (Walter Long to
Lloyd George, 28 May 1919).
67. Ibid. (Walter Long to
Lloyd George, 3 June 1919).
68. HL, LG F/36/2/5 (Macready to
Lloyd George, 23 January 1919).
69. The Times, 3 April 1919.
70. Macready, Annals, i,
71. PRO, MEPO 3/772 (Representative
Board Resolution 25, 6 November 1918).
72. Macready, Annals, ii,
73. Police and Prison Officers’
Magazine, 20 February 1919.
74. Ibid., p.346.
75. The Times, 14 March 1919.
76. PRO, MEPO 2/1777 (Special Police
Order, 30 May 1919).
77. Hansard, 5th series,
1919, cxvi. 1266.
78. Ibid., 2499.
79. Public Bills, 1919, ii
80. The Socialist Standard,
81. The Times, 30 May 1919.
82. Morning Post, 2 August
83. Public Bills, 1919, ii
84. PRO, HO (Home Office)
45/11072/387089 (5 August 1919).
85. The Times, 4 August 1919.
86. PRPG (Police Review and
Parade Gossip), 28 May 1919.
87. Reports from Commissioners,
Inspectors, and Others, 1920, xxii (22), p.727.
88. Ibid., p.164.
89. PRPG, 6 June 1919.
90. PRO, HO 45/11072/387089 (5
91. Manchester Guardian, 6
92. The Times, 2 June 1919.
93. Macready, Annals, i,
94. LHASC, CP IND/MISC/20/09 (Labour
Party Report, Southport).
95. Police and Prison Officers’
Magazine, 21 May 1919.
96. LHASC, JSM (J.S. Middleton
Papers) STR/21 (Hoey to Lindsay, 4 August 1919).
97. JRL (Jack Ryland’s Library), RMD
(Ramsay MacDonald papers) 1/8/8 (Lindsay to Dommett, 12 November 1920).
98. LHASC, JSM STR/22 (Resolution of
trade unionists in support of Liverpool police strike, 4 August 1919).
99. JRL, RMD 1/8/9 (Hodges to Dommett,
9 November 1920).
100. H. Pollitt, Serving My Time
(London, 1940), p.107.
101. PRO, MEPO 3/1786 (Memorandum
Number 10, 4 August 1919).
102. Police and Prison Officers’
Magazine, 3 September 1919.
103. LHASC, LP CA/ADM/57 (Hayes to
Henderson, 25 October 1919).
104. PRO MEPO 3/1786 (Special
Branch, 2 August 1919).
105. Macready, Annals, ii,
106. A. Judge and G.W. Reynolds, The
Night The Police Went On Strike (London, 1968), p.153.
107. The Times, 4 August
108. Liverpool Echo, 2 August
109. J.T. Murphy, Preparing for
Power (London, 1934), p.183.
110. PRO MEPO 3/1786 (Macready, 2
111. Reports from Commissioners,
Inspectors and Others, 1920, xxii (22), p.498.
112. Nott-Bower, Fifty-Two Years,
113. The Times, 4 August
114. Public Bills, 1919, II
115. S. Bowes, The Police and
Civil Liberties (London, 1966), p.21.
116. Reports from Commissioners,
Inspectors, and Others, 1919, xxvii (27), p.718.
117. R. Bean, ‘Police Unrest,
Unionization and the 1919 Strike in Liverpool’, Journal of Contemporary
History 15, 1980, p.647.
118. S. Salvidge, Salvidge of
Liverpool: Behind The Political Scene, 1890-1928. (London, 1934), p.178.
119. The Times, 5 August