PortCities London

Labour unrest in the port after 1889

The General Strike of 1926

Supporting the miners

Blacklegs discharging a ship in the London Docks during the General Strike
View full size imageBlacklegs discharging a ship at London Docks during the General Strike of 1926. © NMM

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) called a General Strike in early May 1926. They made the call in support of a strike by coal miners over the issue of threatened wage cuts.

The strike involved key industries like the docks, electricity, gas and railways. Some of the most dramatic episodes of the strike took place in the Port of London.

Military intervention

Blacklegs using a crane to discharge a ship.
View full size imageBlacklegs using a crane to discharge a ship. © NMM

Vast quantities of perishable food stores lay in the warehouses. When the strikers said that power supplies would be cut, the government decided to move these cargoes.

Blacklegs, with Royal Navy help, loaded the goods onto hundreds of lorries inside the docks. The lorries were then driven away by soldiers from the Guards regiments.

Students rally to the government

Oxford undergraduates unloading food ships at Hay's Wharf.
View full size imageOxford undergraduates unloading food ships at Hay's Wharf. © NMM
The Conservative government was greatly helped by volunteers from the upper and middle classes who believed that the strike was a threat to the established social order. Students from Oxford and Cambridge were among those who answered the government’s call for help with unloading ships in the docks.

Undergraduates busy with barrels of butter in the hold of a food ship.
View full size imageUndergraduates busy with barrels of butter in the hold of a food ship. © NMM

For most of the students involved, performing hard physical labour during the 1926 strike was seen as a bit of fun as well as their civic duty.

No doubt many thoroughly enjoyed the unusual experience. But their intervention caused enormous bitterness among the dockworkers and their supporters.

Destroyers on the Thames

The General Strike.
View full size imagePolice guarding a convoy of goods leaving the docks during the General Strike. © NMM
Destroyers were anchored in the river close to the Royal Docks and Surrey Commercial Docks. Armoured cars manned by troops from the Royal Tank Corps escorted the police when they led convoys of lorries out of the docks, amidst the angry shouts of the dockers. The army even put machine-guns near some of the dock gates.

The unions defeated

The end of the General Strike.
View full size imageThe end of the General Strike. © NMM

The General Strike ended in defeat for the dockers and their supporters. In the face of well-organized government emergency measures, the strike collapsed after nine days.

The miners stayed out on strike, but eventually returned to work in August. They had to accept lower wages and longer hours.

Trade union membership declined after the strike. The dispute gave the government an excuse to pass retaliatory laws against the trades unions. It led to the passing of the 1927 Trade Disputes Act, which restricted the ability of workers to strike.