Harry Watson

Memories of the general strike

On 1st May 1926 Britain’s miners walked out over attempts to increase their hours but cut their pay. In a show of solidarity, at one minute to midnight on 3 May thousands of other workers joined them, creating the first ever general strike in Britain.

The strike sought to force the British government to act to prevent a reduction in wages. One of those strikers was Harry Watson, a dock worker from East London. He recalls the increasing violence with which the police handled the strikers.

“The strike committee was made up of the more senior men. [The younger ones] were carrying messages here and there because we could move faster. I was attending meetings at Becton Road particularly and again there was a meeting there on the fourth day which was a very big meeting and very orderly. Speakers were giving reports of the situation up and down the country when suddenly from out of the blue dozens of mounted police drove in amongst the lot of us. It was a real shambles for about 20 minutes. The platform went over. I don’t know what become of the speakers. The police busted that meeting up and that was a peaceable meeting.

“One morning we had word that there were troops in the docks unloading ships and the lorries were coming up the Victoria Dock Road manned by the troops. Everybody turned out to see just what substance there was to this report and sure enough when we got to the Barking Road outside Canning Town station up came the lorries with barbed wire all around the lorries’ canopy with troops with guns sitting behind the barbed wire.

“The people were jeering and booing but that was the extent of it – certainly nothing in the way of physical reaction or anything of that kind. There was still a degree of good humour about it. Then the police started pushing from behind and they kept pushing and pushing and pushing and we were being pushed further into the road and it led to arguments and before we knew it the police were laying about us with their truncheons. There were a few broken arms as a result of the blows we had been subjected to.

“We never were wanting to involve ourselves in any physical violence in any shape or form. And the strike itself never needed it. I was being guided in my thinking by the elder men that we were going to win this one because it was a national strike and they knew what kind of power and authority that exercised. There was no question that there would be capitulation by the government on this matter of the miners. So there was no need for any violence or forcible application of their ideas.”

On 12 May 1926, the TUC announced its decision to call off the strike if the government offered a guarantee there would be no victimisation of strikers. The government stated that it had “no power to compel employers to take back every man who had been on strike”. The strike was called off with no resolution. The miners maintained resistance for a few months but by the end of November most were back at work, many with longer hours and lower wages so they felt the strike had achieved nothing.

This first person account is edited from a transcript of an interview that took place in 1975.