The British Labour movement and the 1913 lockout.

Text of a talk at an event organised by Unite the Union in 2013.  

At noon on Monday, 1 September 1913, the 46th annual Trades Union Congress opened at the Milton Hall in Manchester. The first session began with messages of regret, as was customary but before the president could proceed further AE Chandler from the Railway Clerks demanded to know what Congress planned to do in connection with events in Dublin over the previous two days where, reports had it, four hundred people had been injured at the hands of the police and one man killed. It was, in the words of the Miners’ Robert Smillie, a massacre.

The trouble had begun in Dublin a couple of weeks earlier when on 15 August, William Martin Murphy issued an ultimatum to Irish Independent dispatch staff to leave the ITGWU or be sacked. Forty were let go and two days later, 200 tramwaymen were added to their number. The dispute escalated when the Dublin tramwaymen from the ITGWU left their trams on the morning of the Horse Show on 26 August and in the days that followed, officials of the Dublin Trades Council were arrested and there were violent scenes in the city. These reached their height with the infamous police baton charge on Sackville Street on what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday.’

Certainly, the delegates at the TUC in Manchester were appalled by events across the water. Many of them had strong connections with Ireland but they were keen that their disgust at events was not viewed as a nationalist reaction: such violence by police during strikes was far too familiar. Almost exactly two years earlier in Liverpool, 350 people were hospitalized after an attack on a mass strike meeting by the police and troops, an attack referred to as Bloody Sunday, and two days later, troops shot and killed two workers in another incident. Events in Dublin had nothing to do with nationalism, they was an act of class war.

But if delegates were united in their condemnation of the police and the authorities, they differed among themselves in their attitude towards the dispute. The British movement was divided between cautious officials who instinctively supported the workers while opposing Larkin’s militancy and those who took a more syndicalist view similar to Larkin. The division was deep but unequal with caution predominating at the highest levels of the trade union leadership.

The less-than wholehearted support for the strike, or more accurately, the strike leaders was clear as James Sexton moved the original motion which condemned the banning of the meeting on Sunday and the ‘brutal manner in which the citizens of [Dublin] were treated.’ As Sexton acknowledged

It is well known, I think, to this congress, or to a good many members of the congress, that I have no reason to love some of the men who are imprisoned in connection with this question but this is a matter which rises above petty personalities altogether. It may be said that two blacks do not make one white; but the blackness of James Connolly, black as it may be – – I do not want to say a word against anyone of them, but I say that the blackness of JC and Larkin – if it be black – is white compared with the hellish blackness of men like Sir Edward Carson and some of his followers.

As Larkin’s old boss in the NUDL there was no love lost between the two but their clash was not merely personal. Sexton was inclined to be cautious as a trade union leader, Larkin less so. Ben Tillett of the London Dockers remarked that Sexton had been mild – he called for Larkin’s release from prison to be included in the motion too – while CB Stanton of the Miners’ Federation criticized the movement for becoming too cautious. ‘We have grown too smug, too respectable. There are too many of our people in the House of Commons, and too many JPs in our midst. There are too many afraid to dare and do.’

Congress voted to send a delegation to Dublin to inquire into events and their party of six men arrived in Dublin on Wednesday but their time in the city was not fruitful. In fact, quite the opposite. Relations were cool to begin with and downright frosty by the end. First of all, the Englishmen refused to address a public meeting when they arrived (in contrast with Keir Hardie who had come earlier). Then, as far as the Dublin men were concerned, a meeting with the Under-Secretary in Dublin Castle seemed to have left them with ‘a bad opinion’ of the Dublin leaders who came to the conclusion that their British brothers had set themselves up as arbitrators rather than supporters; at least one warned that they were trying to end the dispute behind Larkin’s back.

There was one very positive gesture, however, was the TUC’s pledge of £5,000 support for the strikers. At the suggestion of Bill O’Brien, this was given in kind since the sight of food ships docking on the Dublin quays would serve well as a symbol of resistance.

The problem was Larkin and the others did not want charity, they wanted solidarity. Larkin wanted a sympathetic strike and the British labour leaders had no intention of letting him have one; neither were they supportive of blacking goods to Ireland. Larkin, who had been arrested on Bloody Sunday, was released from Mountjoy on 12 September and immediately set off for England. He was there to raise money and support but while his ability to draw a crowd was clear, his lack of diplomacy was as bad as ever. He told a meeting at Manchester that the British trade union movement was ‘absolutely rotten’ and their leaders ‘damnable hypocrites,’ damning them collectively and then by name. Famously, he told them ‘I care for no man or men. I have got a divine mission, I believe, to make men and women discontented.’ If by some chance there was any doubt about where his sympathies lay in the British trade union movement, they were set straight when Larkin spoke at a series of rallies organized by the Daily Herald, the paper of the trade union rebels. Connolly for his part, called them ‘old fossils… willing to sell the pass at any time.’

Publicly, the British labour leaders held their tongues, but openly accused the Dublin unions as being ‘undisciplined and dangerous’ and that Larkin’s syndicalism was ‘poor fighting’ and ’15 years out of date.’

There was clearly support for Larkin and his tactics among the rank and file. Some 13,000 railwaymen in Liverpool, Birmingham, Crewe, Derby and Sheffield refused to carry goods destined for Dublin.[5] The Daily Herald reported that ‘the rank and file …say fight.’ NUR leader Jimmy Thomas was quick to put a stop to this. When, at the end of October, Larkin was found guilty of sedition in a case relating to events months before the Lockout, there was a swell of indignation and a protest rally at the Albert Hall, addressed by George Bernard Shaw and Sylvia Pankhurst, among others easily sold out. Ultimately pressure on the government to ensure Larkin’s release saw him let out of prison on 13 November. Soon after, he returned to England and began the campaign he dubbed ‘The Fiery Cross’ a series of huge meetings which began in Manchester where he spoke to a full house of 4,000 with five times that many outside. Workers flocked to hear him wherever he went: Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hull, Leicester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Preston, Stockport, Swansea. His appearance at the Albert Hall was a hot ticket among workers and aristocrats alike. The campaign and the importation of scabs saw another round of sympathetic strikes in Liverpool and Wales, this time involving some 30,000 workers.

Emmet O’Connor quotes a London official reporting

In all my experience I have never known a time when there has been manifested a desire to help any union in dispute as there is among dockers both in London and the provincial ports towards Dublin… We have had to rearrange the whole of our paid officials in London, placing them in certain centres with the express purpose of preventing any disorganized move.

Larkin’s continued appeals to the rank and file prompted the union leadership to take a stronger line against Larkin and by the time the TUC held a special congress to decide its tactics on the Lockout, it was clear that support among the leadership for sympathetic action was not there. Even those closest to Larkin like Ben Tillett were steadfast against the action. Congress voted to continue its financial support and lend its assistance in leading a settlement but clearly support had begun to ebb away. Strikers began to trickle back to work during December and by 18 January it was officially brought to an end.

Ultimately, the Lockout was disastrous for relations between the British and Irish labour movements but if the British labour movement was not prepared to endorse sympathetic action their support was worth a damn sight more than anything which came from Irish politicians who were either silent on the Lockout or vocally opposed to the strikers. If the Irish leaders saw he British union leadership as too cautious, this shouldn’t overshadow the class solidarity which was so clearly evident during the Lockout, especially by the rank and file. Between September 1913 and February 1914, a total of £150,000 was donated to the Lockout fund, of this two thirds came from British workers. At a time when Dublin trade unionists were callously abandoned by their fellow Irishmen and women, the support of British workers illustrated more than anything, who Irish labour’s friends were, and perhaps as importantly, precisely who they were not.