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1918 strikes: 'I rang Scotland Yard and told them there is likely to be trouble'

This year marks a century since the strike of the Metropolitan and London City Police – an event that changed policing in this country irrevocably. Police Oracle editor Martin Buhagiar looks back at the circumstances that led to a stand-off and dispute which, ultimately, gave the government of the day no choice but to concede.

(Left to right) PC J Crisp, PC T Thiel and Mr T Scott featured in Police Review, September 1918

(Left to right) PC J Crisp, PC T Thiel and Mr T Scott featured in Police Review, September 1918

Date - 8th February 2018
By - Martin Buhagiar - Police Oracle
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The First World War was almost over but had taken its toll on Britain and on the police service.

Huge amounts of unpaid overtime and the almost complete cancellation of any leave had left officers in turmoil. Morale was low in August 1918 and officers’ salaries were even lower.

Experienced police constables in London were earning less than unskilled labourers and, at a time of real financial hardship, they were doing their best to keep crime, particularly muggings and theft, to a minimum.  

The National Union of Police and Prison Officers had been formed in 1913, but by 1918, 23 members had been sacked following raids by the military police.

Despite the upheaval, the morale-sapping environment and these dismissals, dedicated officers remained on duty. That is until one further sacking sent seething officers’ temperatures soaring in the August sun. A tipping point had been reached, and now, there was no turning back.

PC Tommy Thiel was a popular officer. He had put his head above the parapet when calling for financial improvements for officers but was identified by the authorities as a troublemaker. A committed union man, he epitomised the spirit of officers in 1918 by waging a campaign calling for improvements for officers, but diligently serving the country during its time in need.

His sacking for union membership in August 1918 led to a chain of events that reshaped the police force and led officers on a lengthy and unsteady road to a new form of staff association.

Following the first strike in Kings Cross Road, London officers began marching towards Whitehall on August 30 to demand PC Thiel’s immediate reinstatement. As news spread so did the striking officers.

The Police Review of September 1918 informed readers of the cause.

“The police strike, of the possibility of which we have for many years warned the authorities, has taken place.

“The trouble is directly attributable to the dismissal of P.C. Thiel, the provincial organiser of the Police Union. Mr D Carmichael, the secretary of the London Trades Council said: ‘The trouble has arisen through a letter from Manchester which was sent to the Superintendent of the police at Hammersmith with reference to P.C.Thiel. After two days - on Monday and Tuesday - he was suspended, and then dismissed. That is the whole history of the strike’.”

On August 27, three days before officers walked out, the terms were included in a letter as the number of men prepared to strike continued to grow.

The terms of the ultimatum, served by the Acting Secretary of the union John Crisp to the Home Office, were clear.

“Sir – The Executive Committee of the National Union of Police and Prison Officers calls your urgent and immediate attention to the following demands –

"That the present War Bonus of 12s. weekly be immediately increased to £1 per week to all ranks of the London Metropolitan Police Force and to be forthwith converted into permanent wages and to be made pensionable. Further, that a War Bonus, calculated on a basis of 12.5 per cent on all wages and allowances, be granted in addition to above demand.

"That ex-Police Constable T Thiel, provincial organiser of the N.U.P and P.O and delegate to the London Trades Council, who was dismissed from the London Metropolitan Police Force for “grave breach of discipline in taking part in the management and being a member of an unauthorised association known as the National Union of Police and Prison Officers” be immediately reinstated without loss of pay or service.

"Complete “official” recognition of the National Union of Police and Prison Officers and its duly authorised officials.

The Executive Committee of the National Union of Police and Prison Officers hereby gives notice to the London Metropolitan Police Authorities that non-compliance with the above demands by midnight, August 29th, 1918, will necessitate the suspension of clauses (a), (b) and (c) of the union’s Rule 2 (enclosed), and, furthermore , holds the Police Authorities responsible for any situation that may arise therefrom.”

The three clauses referenced were:

  • to use every legitimate and reasonable effort to maintain a just, impartial and efficient public service
  • to promote and encourage at all times the due observance of the regulations and discipline of the service
  • to rigidly maintain a true sense of obligation to the public, by permanently guarding against any possibility of members withholding their services as a means of obtaining redress and to have all differences between authorities and members arranged or decided by amicable and conciliatory means.

A mass meeting on August 29 was held at Pimlico Mission Hall, Ebury Bridge, and attended by representatives of all divisions of the Metro. Here it was claimed an increase in pay was already under consideration and had been discussed between Home Secretary Sir George Cave and Commissioner of the Metropolis, Sir Edward Henry, who was now on leave.

James Marston, chairman of the union’s executive committee, said striking officers and the union had received assurances of support from several local Labour bodies in the capital.

He said the question of salaries – much below the amounts given in provincial forces – had been considered by Sir George but had got no further.

“We are tired of consideration and want something definite,” PC Marston is reported as saying.

By midnight, with no definite answer given to the demands, officers came out on strike.

By 4pm on August 30, the number was at 150 officers who all marched from Scotland Yard to the Home Office. Outside, PC Marston told them they had been invited to meet a General Smuts, with whom they were asked to discuss their grievances. General Smuts had previously received a deputation representing “all of the Superintendents of police in the London area”.

PC Marston told the congregated officers: “There is nobody who can represent you unless they hold the executive committee’s cards.”

Inside the Home Office, the executive committee was met by an official who indicated General Smuts would only see a committee consisting of two representatives from each police division. A disagreement followed with Mr Carmichael stating he and other committee members were fully authorised to see General Smuts. The General refused to receive any union representatives so the officers and executive committee withdrew from the meeting and were greeted by huge cheers outside the Home Office - the crowd was continuing to grow.

As more and more officers joined their colleagues and walked out, steps were taken by the Home Office to take control of the situation.

Special constables were immediately called out, taking charge of important traffic junctions with inspectors also lending a hand in the regulation of traffic. For the most part, other than in the most congested areas, traffic was left to look after itself.

Of more concern to authorities was specials running the gauntlet of pickets. By Friday August 30, large groups of striking officers had appeared across London and more than 11,000 had walked out.

As specials took up their duties, they were routinely and loudly booed, or cheered if they defected and joined the strike.

Police Review reported two specials were “roughly handled” with one being “kicked severely to the ankle”.

Papers and cards were thrust into the hands of specials who were asked, sometimes aggressively, if they were going to join the union and whether or not they intended taking duty.

Things came to a head when, that afternoon outside Scotland Yard, a large number of strikers held up the car of the Assistant Commander of the J Division Special Constabulary before utilising it as a platform.

A member of the union’s executive committee addressed the crowd, it seems while standing on the car’s roof, to say the men were determined specials would not take their places or defeat their aims.

Incredibly, this incident appeared to have the desired effect as on Saturday August 31, special constables were told to go home at various stations when they paraded for their usual tours of duty.

It was reported, for the most part, that specials were in full sympathy with police officers, but those men who had undertaken police duty as an alternative to military service had been placed in a difficult position.

On Friday evening a meeting of officers was held in Tower Hill. PC Marston thanked members of the executive committee for its work and praised the day’s successful industrial action. He also thanked the organised labour of London for its “sympathy and support”.

PC Marston said he wanted to give the men present the facts of his conference with General Smuts, but also criticised the actions of constables.

He said a message had been dispatched to police stations to inform them of the General’s invitation. The union found a number of superintendents present at the Home Office who were apparently ready to represent rank and file in the talks. PC Marston was angered by this.

The Review reports: “He did not blame the Superintendents . He blamed the Constables. They had lain down under the lash. They had no manhood. The system had ground them down. But when discipline and government were abused retribution inevitably followed. That was why the policemen stood as they did today. Now they said to themselves, ‘We are men, we have been cowards’.

“’Be careful,’ the speaker went on, ‘how you use your newly acquired power. Be discreet in the use of it. Be just. Do not fall in the ways that you have learned since you have been in the police (laughter). Be just to your fellow creature, to the public, to the authorities, and to yourselves’.”

General Smuts attempts to speak to officers without the union’s executive committee present was described as “the basest trickery”.

Mr Carmichael addressed the crowd. “My message to you tonight is that the workers of London recognise that the police are on strike for justice and the boys in France will say ‘good luck to you’. I rang up Scotland Yard on Tuesday and told them there is likely to be trouble. They did not believe it.

“You men are suffering as no other section or organised labour is suffering today. Most of you are married men. Your wages represent practically only 25s. according to values before the war. If the authorities do not pay attention to your demands within 24 hours, your executive will have to appeal to organised labour to declare a Bank Holiday on Monday (laughter and cheers). If the authorities want trouble, they will get it. We do not want trouble, but every one of you wants what is his right.”

Manchester officers had indicated they were willing to strike if the government did not accept the union’s proposals.

With confidence building, the union’s executive told the government it would wait at midday on Saturday outside the Home Office to meet “General Smuts, (Prime Minister) Mr Lloyd George or anyone they would like to send”.

Saturday was described as a day of “good order”. That morning police officers marched to Downing Street and were joined by a considerable number of London City Police.

In a huge turning point, the executive committee of the National Union of Police and Prison Officers – Marston, Crisp, Patterson, Field, Scott, Padfield, Simmons and Zoner – were received by Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George at noon. Others present included MP Charles Duncan (workers union and president of the police union) and the London Trades Council’s Mr Carmichael.

The government was ready to bow to demands on pay, reinstate PC Thiel, pay police pensions to widows and give recognition of the right to confer, however, particularly when at war, it refused to sanction a Police Union.

  • Home Secretary, Sir George Cave

Home Secretary Sir George Cave said in a statement following the meeting: “It is quite an old question at the Home Office, and all the Secretaries of State have declined to recognise the union, not because they have been opposed to unions in general – quite the contrary – but their view was that the police are a disciplined force responsible for the order of the country, and that there was a risk that the Police Union might lead to a divided allegiance and possibly to police strikes. It is true that the existing union provided by its constitution that in no circumstances should a strike be called for. When this trouble arose that particular clause in the constitution was at once abrogated.

“When the strike broke out yesterday morning I was in Somerset on a short holiday, and the Commissioner of Police was in Ireland. I returned last night, and the Commissioner crossed by the boat and arrived this morning.

“I should like to take the opportunity of contradicting a statement which has been, I believe, widely circulated that at some point I said I thought the men’s present pay was sufficient and that I declared these men were only doing second-class labour. I want to say quite definitely that I never said anything of the kind. It is not my opinion nor the kind of language I should use.

“I have always held the very highest opinion of the conduct of the men who form the police force and have always been most anxious that they should be adequately paid. I entirely agree that the time has come, having regard to the conditions of life, for raising the pay of these men.

“In regard to the Police Union, the Prime Minister said to the deputation of Policemen who saw him that he could not in war time sanction recognition of a Police Union. He pointed out that the trouble in Russia had to a great extent risen form the existence of a union or a committee among the soldiers. He thought the police were 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.”

Just before 2pm on the Saturday the Premier’s conference concluded and Mr Carmichael mounted the garden wall. Proposals had been made, he said, and now the executive would consider them and make recommendations at the union’s planned mass meeting at 5pm. The executive would then return to Downing Street for 6pm to inform the Prime Minister of its decision.

He ended his speech by saying: “This is the greatest victory for freedom and justice that has been won in this country.”

At 5pm, to huge cheers, Mr Carmichael told the crowd: “You ask me how the union stands. Well, the Prime Minister, when he accepted your executive, gave you that recognition. Your executive, with the Home Office, are going to have meetings in order to draw up on your behalf the rules to apply to an authorised organisation. There will be divisional committees drawn from them, which I hope you will recognise by re-electing your present executive. And during the war this authorised organisation, which is framed on your present union in concession to your demands, will deal with every grievance you have got.

“The attitude of the authorities over you has caused the Prime Minister the greatest indignation, and he will enquire into the cause of why, until yesterday afternoon, it had been kept away from him.”

PC Marston proposed the scheme offered by the Prime Minister be recommended for the acceptance of members with PC Zollener (City Police) seconding the resolution. Marston told officer they were expected to start work that night and PC Thiel’s reinstatement was dependent on that happening. He moved a second resolution for this to be recommended - a move was met by huge cheers.

PC Thiel was reinstated that evening.

The Prime Minister was given the credit for bringing the strike to its end.

The Review reported: “The strike has been settled with promptitude and a decision which are in the sharpest contrast with the dilatoriness and procrastination out of which it directly arose. For that the police have to thank the Prime Minister.”

  • Prime Minister, David Lloyd George

Commissioner Sir Edward Henry had made his way home from holidaying in Ireland and was furious. He felt the government was frightened and gave in too early. Feeling let down by both his officers and the government he immediately resigned claiming the government had encouraged trade unionism within the police – something he was vehemently opposed to. As a result, he was seen by some as a scapegoat for the political failures of the government – many felt it had reacted too late to the threat of a police strike.

The scale on pensionable pay was increased by 13s. a week – with constables starting at 43s. increasing to 53s. after 20 years. Other ranks received a similar increase. The war bonus of 12s. per man and 2s. 6d for each child attending school was maintained. A non-contributory widow’s pension of 10s. a week was introduced and the existing provision of £12 a year for each child of school-going age was continued from the orphanage fund.

The fact PC Thiel was reinstated led the executive committee to believe that no man would be penalised for joining the union. The Prime Minister still refused to recognise the union but conceded there should be an authorised organisation and there needed to be further consultation on this.

The union had no intention of changing its name. Mr Carmichael said: “We have branches in all the large cities and we do not want to quibble at any point during the war. The police desire, now that they have obtained their increase of pay, to work in conjunction with the government, but at the end of the war – well, time will show.

“Our application to become affiliated to the National Labour party still stands. At the present moment our membership is practically four-fifths of the total number of the metropolis. The whole of Manchester is with us, as well as other cities in the provinces. The union desires, now that the strike is over, that everything should work smoothly.”

London City Police officers also received improved terms and recommended them to the Court of Common Council for adoption.

Time did indeed tell. By 1919, General Cecil Macready had been appointed Police Commissioner of the Metropolis and the government had used the goodwill and time offered by the union following the initial strike to prepare for a similar event.

General Macready reorganised the structure of his force, isolating militant union men and placating those showing an interest in the Police Union. He refused to recognise Marston and the union’s general secretary Jack Hayes and was a popular chief with moderates in his force.

The commissioner established representative boards in an attempt to bypass the union which would consist of one delegate from each of the force’s 26 divisions. Slowly the union’s power dwindled.

The government announced a committee to be convened under Lord Desborough that would look at all aspects of police forces in England, Wales and Scotland. It looked at the inconsistency in police pay across the country with the salaries of unskilled labourers and agricultural workers still outstripping that of the police. The committee illustrated that a street sweeper in Newcastle earned the same rate of pay as a constable in the same city.

More examples were given exposing that those in menial work earned more than officers in six forces – all of which were still paid higher than Metropolitan policemen.

As a result, there was huge sympathy for their plight in the country as Lord Desborough recommended, what was seen as, very generous pay increases.

By 1919 most major unions were in active disputes across the country including dock, transport and railway workers. Bakers were already on strike and, with the National Union of Police and Prison Officers not being recognised by the Commissioner, the Met feared police officers could align with the TUC – something it could not allow to happen.

The Police Act of 1919 was created to finally see off the National Union of Police and Prison Officers and the Police Federation was established in its place. The union was outlawed and had no option but to stage one last fight. It called for a second strike in July 1919 but flatly failed.

Rather than be inspired by the union, some officers feared their new commissioner while some believed, with pay improving and the Federation being created, there was no need to walk out.

Of the Met’s 18,200 men, just 1,156 walked out. All were instantly dismissed without pension rights and never got their jobs back.

The act also made it illegal for police and prison officers to belong to or affiliate to a trade union, ending any hope the TUC had of adding police officers to its ranks.

Executive members of the The National Union of Police and Prison Officers had achieved real change. While their organisation no longer received the recognition their efforts perhaps deserved, policemen – and officers in the future - were now better off and their families would be looked after should they make the ultimate sacrifice. The executive had held conference with the Prime Minister and inspired thousands to stand up to a government which had initially refused to listen.

They did not want trouble - they wanted what was right. When Carmichael himself said: “This is the greatest victory for freedom and justice that has been won in this country,” in 1918, few doubted him. 

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