Mike Royden's Local History Pages

The Liverpool Transport Strike of 1911

William Jones



The Liverpool Transport Strike of 1911 has been highlighted by the historian Eric Taplin  as the nearest occasion this country has come to a revolution. The sequence of events built up slowly, but from June 1911, the sequence and timing of events increased, culminating in major flashpoints during August 1911. Large scale rioting, fierce confrontations between the rioters the police and the military resulted in injuries to many people and the loss of life. For some time the city of Liverpool was brought to a standstill, and the movement of goods of any description in or out, or even within the city, was severely restricted.


The strike was initiated by the seamen and eventually involved 66,000 men who brought Liverpool to a standstill. I intend to examine the general labour unrest that was prevalent in the country, and in the city of Liverpool, because of extremely poor wages and living conditions. I will also examine the troubled sectarian divide within the city that had led to disturbances and riots prior to and also during the strike of 1911. However, differences were put aside during the lead up to the funerals of the rioters who had been killed during the strike. Finally, I will assess the strike in Liverpool of 1911, which encompassed all sections of transport, from dockers, railwaymen and tram drivers, to the lower echelon of transport workers, the carters.


The research I have carried out has entailed visiting libraries, and record offices, in both Preston and Liverpool as well as, trade union centres, museums, to use the internet and newspaper offices at which I obtained both primary and secondary sources. I have corresponded with Eric Taplin, the author of Near to Revolution, The Liverpool Transport Strike of 1911, and gained his views on the strike. I have also been in communication with Liverpool City Council’s Historian Steve Binns, and during my research I contacted the Merseyside, South Yorkshire and West Midlands police forces for further historical background information. Due to police force   reorganisation and several moves of their headquarters since the event, each force informed me that no pertinent records were kept.


Industrial unrest in Liverpool and beyond 1906-1911


Leo Chiozza, in his book, 1 published in 1905, highlighted the great disparity in the distribution of wealth amongst the people of Britain. He divided the British national product into two equal halves, one half was shared by over 39 million people, (80% of the population), whilst the remaining 5.5 million (only 12% of the population) shared the other half. Furthermore ownership of capital was distributed even more disproportionately, 120,000 people owned two thirds of the nation’s capital. Chiozza calculated that in 1905, 650,000 of the poorer sections of society left bequests totalling £30 million, whilst £260 million was left by the upper classes, 26 leaving bequests which equalled the total of the poorer sections of society.


A major concern to the government of the day, was the disproportionate distribution of wealth in the ‘Golden Edwardian Age.’ Large numbers of the population lived in widespread poverty, and resulted in people suffering health problems caused by a poor diet. It  was popularly believed that this had led to large numbers of men being rejected as volunteers to join the army during the Boer War because of their poor physical condition. This theory was later disproved as a myth by Michael Rosenthal in his  book ‘The Character Factory’.3    The actual working class was divided into two main bodies, the artisans who earned a relatively decent wage and the labourers, consisting of unskilled workers, such as the dockers, porters and scavengers. Many of the unskilled workers had become members of ‘New Unions’ from the late 1880’s onwards. The leaders of these new unions were often socialists who wanted to expand trade unionism on a class basis and supported the development of independent labour politics and a party to represent the working class movement. 4  


Charles Booth (London), and Seebohm Rowntree (York), independently highlighted the state of poverty and the ill health of people in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century.5 Housing conditions were often appalling, people lived in extremely cramped inner city dwellings often without any form of sanitation. The greed of some landlords, who exploited people’s needs to live in the inner cities by subdividing properties and increasing rental charges, without undertaking any repairs or improvements, was common place.6 The cramped and unsanitary conditions people lived in were often greatly increased by tenants sub-letting rooms within their rented accommodation. Eleanor Rathbone investigated social and industrial conditions within Liverpool c1900-1910, 7 and her data highlighted the plight of the Liverpool casual labourer, and corroborated the findings of Booth and Rowntree.


In the first decade of the new century real wages fell by roughly 10%, in a situation where prices were rising while money wages tended to remain static. 8 Food prices and the cost of living in general during this period rose steeply which, together with the fall in wages, pushed more people into poverty.   Union membership increased quickly from 1,997,000 in 1906 to 3,139,000 in 1911, and the number of strikes also doubled during this period from 479 to 872, affecting three times as many workers. These strikes were led by railwaymen, miners and dockers, particularly in the heavily industrialised areas of South Wales, the North West and the North East. 9     


Militancy increased from 1907, riots occurred in Belfast as carters, coal porters and dockers went on strike over low wages. The Scottish miners’ dispute of 1909 and the cotton, boilermakers and miners strikes of 1910 preceded further serious unrest, commencing in 1910 with the miners’ strike in Tonypandy South Wales when 12,000 miners struck for better pay and conditions against the Cambrian Coal Combine.10 Fifteen thousand workers went on strike over pay and conditions in the wool trade industry in Yorkshire, 11 and further riots had occurred as a result of a strike by steel workers at Shotton on Deeside 12,


Liverpool was a hotbed of militant unionism, an example being the strike, of the ship scalers and cementers who struck on the 9 January 1911 for better pay and conditions, and were still on strike into March of 1911.13 Many of the ‘new unions’ had been influenced by a revolutionary form of trade unionism, known as syndicalism, led by the charismatic Tom Mann and Ben Tillett. Syndicalists argued that the workers who operated the machinery possessed the real power and once the working class agreed to act together it would hold the power.14  


The Syndicalists formed an Unofficial Reform Committee and advocated that,

            ‘Every industry properly organised, in the first place, to fight, to gain control of, and then to administer, that industry. The co-ordination of all industries on a Central Production Board, who, with a statistical department to ascertain the needs of people, will issue its demands on the different departments of industry, leaving to the men themselves to determine under what conditions and how, the work should      be done. This would mean real democracy in real life, making for real manhood and womanhood. Any other form of democracy is a delusion and a snare’ (internet accessed 10 May 2002). 15


This movement and its leaders were to exercise a great deal of influence, and leadership during the Liverpool Transport Strike of 1911.   ‘Syndicalism is hostile to the State, distrusts and resists the interference of all political government in industry’ (Askwith 1974:327).                                                   

             ‘Syndicalism is primarily, indeed solely, concerned with the producer, the worker as the agent for   producing wealth. Trade Unionism is to be supreme and the State set aside’ (Ibid: 329).


Through better education by 1911, working men were now prepared to question the whole social system and were striving for better wages and conditions.


The Edwardian period is often referred to as a ‘golden age’; the upper classes did enjoy extravagant lifestyles, but sections of the working class suffered a life of deprivation and squalor, and industrial unrest fermented throughout the country that resulted in both industrial action and conflict during this period.The recovery from the recession of 1908-09 created a situation of increased trade and gave an underlying stimulus to renewed trade union pressure for material improvements (Holton 1974:124).16


During the early part of 1911 the pressure of political and labour unrest continued to grow, as workers struck for better wages and conditions as highlighted in the report by the Liverpool Watch Committee Minutes, which recorded that the ship scalers and cementers had been on strike for well over two months.17


To deal with increasing industrial unrest, often troops were sent in to put down strikes and unrest harshly. Strike leaders appealed to troops, in an open letter written in Liverpool by Fred Bower in May 1911, not to shoot the strikers but to join the class struggle.18 app. 1


Although the transport and dock strikes were national events, it was in Liverpool that the strikers proved to be most troublesome and organised against government opposition. This can be attributed to the organisational abilities of the Liverpool strike committee, chaired by the Syndicalist Tom Mann. Mann was the most influential trade unionist of this period that had helped to set up the Transport and General Workers Union with his friend and colleague Ben Tillett.


Mann arrived at Liverpool docks on 14 June 1911 with a poster that proclaimed ‘War Declared: Strike for Liberty.19 Mann, in making this statement, can be seen as bringing his Syndicalist opinions to the fore, and he was declaring a class war. The class demarcation lines had been drawn up in the early Edwardian novel by Robert Tressell, ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ in which the central character Frank Owen, a socialist and Trade Unionist, described his fellow workers as ‘despicable, no wonder the rich despised them and looked upon them as dirt, they were dirt, they admitted it and gloried in it’.20 He described the workers in this way because that was the way the workers had accepted their place in society, their inferiority to their employers who were their social superiors, and consequently their poverty.


With the working classes now better educated Mann seized the opportunity to  rally the union members to challenge the previously accepted status quo, to fight for what was rightfully theirs. During this period the country and Liverpool in particular, was enduring a tumultuous period of labour unrest, and Taplin points to one of the severest cases of civil unrest occurring during The Liverpool Transport Strike of 1911.



1              Bedarida F.            1991        pp 151

2              Chin C.                   1995        pp114

3              Rosenthal R.         1986        pp136/7

4              Hikins H.                1973        pp   99                                                                                                   

5              Read D.                   1994        pp 339

6              Hikins H.                 1973 

7              Rathbone E            1904

8              Report of an Inquiry by the Board of Trade into Working class rents and retail prices together with the rates and wages in certain occupations in industrial towns of UK. in 1912.cited in Hikins H.R. 1973 pp 124.

 9             Hasley A.H.            1972        pp  121 

10            Mann T.                  1923        pp 208

11            Liverpool Daily Post  and Mercury   Wednesday  8 June 1910

12            Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury   Thursday 16 June 1910

13            Liverpool Watch Committee minutes   report of 1911

14            Mann T.     1923    pp   206

15            Internet     http:// www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/Congress/1346/syndicalists.html

16            Holton R.     1974        pp124

17            Liverpool Watch Committee Minutes     9 January 1911, 20 February 1911

18            Bower F.                 1936        pp 180/181

19            Hikins H.                               1961        pp 5

20            Tressell R                               1914        pp46




Sectarianism in Liverpool prior to the Transport Strike of 1911


Liverpool’s first sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants occurred in 1819, and involved a limited number of participants, 1 who were thought to have come from elsewhere in the country. In 1835, a major sectarian riot took place in Liverpool on Orange Day 12 July.2 It was so serious that it culminated in 43 people receiving prison sentences of 6 months each.3   


With the massive influx of people from Ireland during the late 1840’s, due to the Irish  famine, sectarian conflict increased dramatically. The 1851 census reveals that of Liverpool’s total population of 83,813, 22.3% had been born in Ireland. The first death due to sectarian clashes occurred in 1850 when a man was shot at a religious confrontation.4 Clashes in the city continued throughout the nineteenth century, but it is during the Edwardian period that the sectarian conflict reached its peak.


 During 1904 the Liverpool City Police were called out to disturbances on 639 occasions. They had to use force to control situations on eighteen occasions and of these eight were classed as riots.5


After a period of relative stability in Liverpool between the years 1905-1908,  the Head Constable of Liverpool Leonard Dunning in May 1909 granted Catholics permission for a procession to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of Holy Cross Church. The Police escorted 4,500 marchers through the mainly Catholic areas of the city but it was the spark that ignited increased sectarian conflict. Riots occurred on Sunday 20 June 1909 that were eventually brought under control by continued Mounted Police charges, numerous baton charges, and resulted in fifty arrests. Twenty people were taken to hospital of which eight were police constables.6


Head Constable Dunning, who had previously been a District Inspector in the Royal Irish Constabulary, compared the bigotry in Liverpool to Belfast.7 He despised both Protestant and Catholic extremists and treated both factions with distain and Impartiality.7 He was a man of ‘efficiency, courage, and discipline, and above all, uprightness, truth, and inflexible impartiality’.8


Dunning was not politically aware of feelings that were expressed in both the local Catholic and Protestant press. He had an unbending political insensitivity, particularly regarding the Catholic procession of 1909, and he viewed the sectarian conflict simply in formal legal and peace-keeping terms.


Sectarian skirmishes continued to occur on a regular basis up to the Transport Strike of 1911. Prior to the transport strike of 1911 the police reported to the Liverpool Watch Committee that sectarian violence occurred on 19 March, at an Irish League meeting.9


On 22 May, Holy Trinity Church St. Anne Street, along with many other churches of both denominations had many windows broken,10  and serious sectarian disturbances occurred in Everton on 19 June and 26 June 1911 in the Netherfield Road area of the city.11 As a result of continuing sectarian problems, the Head Constable reported to the Liverpool Watch Committee that after a period of relative calm, sectarian violence was very much on the increase.12


Rioting continued right up to the period of the transport strike in the city, with damage to properties in Norton Street on the 14 August 1911.13 During the actual fierce rioting associated with the transport strike, sectarian skirmishes continued in Great Homer Street, the boundary between Catholics and Orange Protestants. It was reported that a police inspector described the ‘skirmish as the fiercest seen for years’ and troops, who were in the city to assist the authorities in quelling the transport strike rioters, were used to bring this sectarian riot to an end. 14  


The only redeeming feature of hope during this period of Liverpool’s sectarian divide, was the fact that, members of both religions attended the funerals of  the men, killed during the transport strike riots that had brought the city to a standstill.


Sectarianism was to trouble the City of Liverpool for several more decades, and the fierce rivalry between the factions only really dissipated with the break up of the tight knit sectarian enclaves through housing clearances in the early 1960’s, when people were sent  to new housing estates on the outer edges of the city, and beyond. 




1              Billinge’s Advertiser     19tand 26 July 1819

2              Liverpool Mercury      17 July 1835

3              Liverpool Courier   4 October  1835

4              Liverpool Chronicle   17 July and 3 August 1850

5              Waller  P.J.    1981        pp209

6              Liverpool Daily Post  and Mercury    21 June 1909

7              HO 45/11138/1864474.   cited in Waller P.J.    Democracy and Sectarianism

8              The Times     22 February 1941

9              Liverpool Watch Committee Minutes 20 Mar 1911   pp468

10            Ibid     22 May 1911           pp565

11            Ibid     19 and 26 June 1911     pp636,     650-4      

12            Ibid    31 July 1911     pp 30

13            Ibid     14 August 1911   pp 49

14            Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury  14 August 1911



The Liverpool Transport Strike of 1911  


In chapter one, I have highlighted the industrial unrest, poverty and poor health that existed in the country, and in Liverpool in particular, for working class people.


Chapter two detailed the long history of sectarian violence in the city. Liverpool was a violent, sectarian city, and it appeared that nothing would unite the city. In 1911 events took place within Liverpool that temporarily united both Catholics and Protestants as the city was gripped from June until September by a series of strikes for better pay and conditions that brought the city to a standstill.  


The living conditions in urban areas were extremely poor. Large areas of Liverpool consisted of poor properties, primarily of either small back-to-back terraced houses, occupied by large families, sometimes two families to a room. They had a communal entrance with common sanitary arrangements and most properties had extremely poor facilities, amenities and sanitation with communal washing facilities. Working conditions in Liverpool were extremely poor, with most of the labour employed in the docks, warehousing and transport. Unlike other major towns, Liverpool did not have a manufacturing industrial base and people were employed and discarded on a casual basis.


The period from 1910, until the start of World War One in 1914, was known as ‘the Great Unrest’. Strikes occurred to gain union recognition, and industrial conflict broke out, often led by rank and file members of unions, in pursuance of improved wages, hours of work and working conditions.

Whilst the majority of the lower classes were beginning to politically support the Independent Labour Party, the more militant were keen to quicken the pace of change, and joined the Syndicalist movement. In 1910 the Industrial Syndicalist Education League was established in Manchester, and sixty delegates elected Tom Mann as its leader.1 The delegates represented a large number of union members and by the end of 1910 they had been joined by the Transport Workers Federation. This group represented the dockers, seamen and carters, and strikes began to occur in early 1911 in Hull, Manchester and London.    


On 31 May 1911, a weekday, the Transport Workers Federation, called a demonstration to be held at St. George’s Hall Plateau. The meeting asked to support the two seamen’s unions in their proposed dispute with the ship owners. Thousands of people supported the call to demonstrate, and,


‘On a workday evening, the workers marched from the south and the north of the City with bands playing and banners flying. Seamen, firemen, ships’ cooks and stewards, dockers, carters, railwaymen, canal workers, motormen and other transport workers were all united.’ 2


People came from across the sectarian divide to listen to speeches from union leaders, Havelock Wilson of the seamen’s union, Joseph Cotter , a Syndicalist, of the stewards union, Will Thorne M.P., Ben Tillett and James Sexton. The seamen’s demands were that they objected to the degrading medical inspection that was insisted on by the ship owners. They demanded that some wages be paid when their ship was in port and not be held until their return home. Further demands included improved conditions on ship, and an increase of ten shillings per month to bring the seaman’s wages to £5 10s per month. A similar increase was asked for ships’ firemen to bring their wages up to £6 per month on the Atlantic liners.


On the 14 June 1911 500 firemen refused to ‘sign on’ to man the following Ship the C.P.R. liner ‘Empress of Ireland’ and the White Star Line’s ‘Teutonic’ and ‘Baltic’. The Strikers put pressure firstly on their colleagues on the mail steamers to support the strike and then the strike call was extended to seamen of other shipping firms.3


A meeting of the leading Liverpool ship owners had agreed to allow each company to reach individual settlements, according to what each company’s trade warrented.4


 This was a disastrous error by the Liverpool ship owners as it opened the floodgates for seamen in other ports to negotiate with Members of the Shipping Federation, when during this period the ship owners needed to present a collective united front in their negotiations with the unions.5


Sympathetic strikes occurred throughout the country, and the National Shipping Federation, of which the Liverpool ship owners were not a part, favoured a fighting strategy of running some ships, laying up other ships and indemnifying their owners, with the intention of forcing the strikers back to work. The seamen’s strike was solid in its support from all factions of sea going workers, the stokers, stewards, ships’ cooks and other on shore groups of workers who usually adhered to a strict policy of job demarcation ‘joining hand-in-hand  for the furtherance of the common cause’.6


The Liverpool ship owners collectively decided to negotiate with the seamen, under a committee chaired by Alfred A. Booth, a nephew of Charles Booth the social reformer.7 The big transatlantic companies concluded agreements with the union; the smaller ship owners held out with the intention of keeping the wages at the old levels. They came under immense pressure from the Board of Trade to conclude an agreement with the union strike committee, led by Tom Mann. The Daily Courier reported Mann as saying that “the seamen’s strike was ending and attributed the gratifying conclusion to the shipping companies’ generous treatment of the men.”8 app. 2   


On 28 June 1911, the 4000 dockers reacted to the seamen’s victory by walking off the job, to strike for improved wages and conditions. These were followed by scalers, coal heavers, and by the end of that day 10,000 men were out on strike. The seamen came out in full support of the dockers who had supported them during their dispute with the ship owners.9


Within a week, an agreement was reached with the dockers’ union by thirty deep-sea ship owners and twenty master stevedores, to adopt on a port wide basis union hours and rates of pay, and for employers to recognise union members and not to discriminate against them.10 The dock unions had gained the recognition it had been striving for in Liverpool’s northern docks system, and its union secretary James Sexton thought the agreement reached ‘magnificent’.11


Throughout the month of July other workers in Liverpool heartened by the success of workers in shipping related industries came out on strike for better pay and conditions. Tug boat workers, scalers on the Mersey Ferries, coopers and labourers at the giant Stanley Dock tobacco warehouse, Cotton Exchange porters, brewery workers and workers at the rubber plant all struck, but it was when the railway workers  went on strike that the industrial unrest, with its pattern of continuing strikes entered its most bitterest phase.


Railwaymen’s union leaders representing the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company were co-opted on to the strike committee in Liverpool and when 1000 dock porters came out on strike on 7 August, it was agreed that all transport workers would add their support through sympathetic strike action. By the next day 4000 railway workers were on strike, over union recognition and wage demands,12 initially  against the wishes of senior rail trade union officials who favoured negotiations via the conciliation boards.13 Mounted Police were used to quell disturbances at the Edge  Hill goods station as clerks from the goods offices began to unload railway vans.14


The railway employers took a hard confrontational stance and issued a statement stating that no railwayman on strike would be reinstated. The employers intention was to blacklist all the strikers and began to hire porters from outside the Liverpool area.15


As each day passed, other railway companies workers struck in support, followed by other transport workers. Soon, the entire Liverpool dock system was brought to a halt.


The Liverpool strike committee had, in effect, taken the leadership of the railwaymen in Liverpool away from senior railway union officials, and as the strike of railwaymen then spread outside the confines of the city to Manchester, Preston and Crewe, 75% of all the inward and outward cargo to and from the port’s hinterland could not be moved in or out of the city.16


The situation deteriorated rapidly over the next few days and lead to the railway strike becoming a national dispute and, after hurriedly convening and consulting, the national railway executives made the dispute official, and represented their members during the dispute.17  On the 9 August 1911 the Police Watch Committee resolved unanimously:


  ‘that the Head Constable be and is hereby authorised to obtain assistance of additional police

   to such numbers as he may seem desirable to preserve peace in the city during the railway strike.’ 18


Detachments of police and military arrived in the city on 10 August from Leeds, Birmingham, 200 officers from the Royal Irish Constabulary, together with 400 troops from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, and were greeted with boos and catcalls outside Lime Street Station by thousands of strikers congregated on St. George’s plateau.19 The Lord Mayor asked for additional Police and troops in a telegram to Home Secretary Winston Churchill, and within days extra Police had arrived from Lancashire and Bradford. In addition to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, extra troops from the Scots Greys, Hussars and The Yorkshire Regiment arrived in the city and were stationed at Seaforth barracks or billeted at Sefton Park.20 In total, an extra 2,400 police and 5,000 troops were in the city.21


Churchill described the confrontations as just hooliganism when he informed Parliament that ‘disorder and riots sometimes occur in those parts of Liverpool where sectarian difficulties exist’. 22


Further minor disturbances occurred over the next two days, but the conflict surrounding the strike deteriorated due to events that occurred during, and after a mass meeting called in support of the strike that was held on Sunday 13 August 1911, which became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ when police, troops and rioters clashed in lengthy, bitter street fighting. Permission had been obtained for the transport workers to hold a mass meeting on St. George’s Plateau on the Sunday afternoon, and the strike committee called on ‘all workers taking part in the demonstration on ‘Sunday Afternoon Next’ to conduct themselves with manly dignity.’23 Previously agreement had been reached by Tom Mann with the Head Constable that the presence of the police and the military would be kept to a minimum,  to try and limit any prospective confrontation. 24   


Fred Bower, who spoke to the crowd at the meeting on 13 August, wrote in his book, ‘Rolling Stonemason’ ,


  ‘From Orange Garston, Everton and Toxteth Park, from Roman Catholic Bootle and Scotland Road Area, they came. Forgotten were their religious feuds, disregarded the dictum of their clericals on Both sides who affirmed the strike was a atheist stunt. The Garston band had walked five miles and their drum-major proudly whirled his sceptre twinned with orange and green ribbons as he led his contingent band, half out of the local Roman Catholic Band, and half out of the local Orange Band.’  ‘there was a wonderful spirit of humour and friendliness permeated the atmosphere…             It was glorious weather when, from a dozen wagons on the Plateau in Lime Street, speeches were being made in support        of the railway workers who were asking for an increase of a shilling  or two per week.’ 25, app. 3


Estimates of the people who attended the rally put the crowd at 80,000,


  ‘women and children were ranked tier upon tier of them and the meeting was perfectly orderly’.26                         


Mann, speaking from one of five lorries placed among the crowd reiterated his call for  a general transport strike in Liverpool, saying,


  ‘We cannot, in the face of the military and extra police drafted into the City, have effectual picketing  and we cannot but  accept the display of force as a challenge. We shall be prepared to declare on Tuesday morning a general strike, that will mean a strike of all transport men of all classes.’27


and there was a unanimous agreement to accept the strike call. A disturbance occurred at about 4 p.m. when a man was sitting on the window sill of the Station Hotel in Lime Street to gain a vantage point, and was watching the proceedings of the meeting when the police ordered him to come down. He refused to do so, was brought down by the police and the huge crowd resented this and a fight began.


Several policemen were seriously hurt and at this juncture the police withdrew up Lord Nelson Street to the safety of Lime Street Station.28  Contrary to his agreement with Mann, the Head Constable had stationed one hundred soldiers of the Warwickshire Regiment together with numerous officers from the Leeds and Birmingham Police inside St. George’s Hall. At the first sign of trouble the contingents of police emerged from the hall and baton charged the crowd. Since their arrival, simmering ill feeling towards the Birmingham Police had occurred, mainly because the strikers who had a good relationship with the Liverpool Police. The strikers saw this as an escalation of the confrontational approach by the authorities in bringing police from another force into the city, and this was heightened by their indiscriminate use of the batons.29 Bystanders were attacked, and the police continued to hit men and women who had fallen to the ground, and this further antagonised the crowd.30


Another eyewitness described the scene

as policemen aiming cruel blows upon the heads of men, women and children…     dozens lay bleeding and unconscious, citizens were to be seen lying helpless on the ground’ 31 


Mounted Police officers, assisted by some members of the Lancashire force,32  charged the crowd and, after a lengthy resistance and numerous baton charges lasting 30 minutes, the police cleared the steps of St. Georges’ Hall. The ground was covered in broken glass, bricks, stones, pieces of timber and other missiles. The Birmingham Police, who had led the charge, suffered greatly from their attacks on the crowd. Two officers received serious injuries, Superintendent Boulton received a broken leg and P.C. Phillips received a head wound with an iron bar, two severe scalp wounds, one to his cheek and was kicked and trampled on as he fell to the ground defending his senior officer.32  The Liverpool Echo reported the confrontation between the police and the crowd as           ‘ a scene which reminded one of the turbulent times in Paris when the Revolution was at its height’. 33  


The Liverpool stipendiary magistrate Stuart Deacon appeared on the steps of St. George’s Hall, and surrounded by troops of the Warwickshire Regiment, read the Riot Act, which meant that the streets had to be cleared of people otherwise the authorities would take action to do so. Trouble erupted in nearby Christian Street, where severe fighting broke out and the police and troops were pelted with missiles from roof tops. Again, Deacon was called and the Riot Act was read.34 The police cleared the rooftops using similar tactics to the rioters, and ordered that public houses in the vicinity be closed.35


On the night of 14 August, a sectarian riot occurred in Great Homer Street, not connected to the rioting during the day, on the borders of Catholic and Protestant areas, resulting in much damage. Troops from the Yorkshire Regiment made a bayonet charge, and fired seven volleys to disperse the crowd; many people were injured from the continual baton charges carried out by the  police, 36 and extra troops from the Northumberland Fusiliers were sent to the city overnight.37


The Liverpool Strike Committee called a general strike as from midnight on 14 August and Tom Mann announced:

A strike of all transport men of all classes; of railway workers, passenger as well as goods men, drivers, stokers. It will mean all connected with the ferry boats,  tug boats, river tender –men, Dock Board men,   Overhead and underground railways, flatmen, bargemen, dockers, coal-heavers, crane men, elevator men, warehouse workers, carters, and in fact every conceivable section and branch of the great transport industry in Liverpool will down tools until this business is settled.’ 38


On the 15 August all work in the city was as at a standstill and the Liverpool Echo ‘reported that there was quietness in the docks’ as workers heeded the call for strike action during the day. The City Justices appealed for men to enrol as special constables and hundreds came forward to volunteer and were accepted. In addition, magistrates signed orders giving police the powers to close public houses in areas affected by trouble.39    


Five prison vans, escorted by the Hussars, were attacked in Vauxhall Road, taking prisoners to Walton Jail, and furious attempts were made to rescue the prisoners.  The riots that took place were over several hours, with rioters firing weapons at the police and troops resulting in two men being killed. The Riot Act, according to the Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury had to be read five times to try and bring order and the paper reported one death on 16 August as:


‘The troopers conscious of the importance of defending the prison vans had to defend their lives against the                 murderous onslaught being made on them from every side. At last the order to Fire was given and five or six shots rang out in the air……. But it was only a momentary halt to the proceedings. A man who had been one of the foremost in the melee lunged forward towards one of the troopers; his arm was upraised and in his hand was a formidable iron bar. The trooper was not one of the men who had used his carbine but instantly realising that the moment was a deadly one for him, he quick as thought snatched his revolver from his holder     and fired one shot just as arm wielding  the fearsome weapon was a falling upon him. It was a fatal aim the trooper had taken for his assailant fell mortally wounded.’ 40 app. 4    


Members of the strike committee claimed that none of the men who took part in the attack on the prison vans were strikers, although both worked on the docks, and that they were doing everything to keep ‘their men in hand’. The deaths of the two rioters would lead to a national strike unless the ship owners and railway companies gave way in the dispute.41


The Liverpool Territorials were instructed to return the bolts of their rifles to barracks, thus rendering them useless, as it was felt by the authorities that there was a real possibility that the rifles would be used in any future conflict against the military and police authorities.42 The Government dispatched two cruisers to Liverpool on the 17 August, H.M.S. Antrim was stationed in the Mersey opposite the Albert Dock, and H.M.S. Warrior was stationed at Douglas under steam, with a view of entering the Mersey if the situation further deteriorated.43 The situation in Liverpool continued to cause concern as food and other perishable goods were in short supply.


Most other goods, even post, could only be moved within the city boundary’s by agreement of the strike committee. appendix 5 The authorities were powerless, the city was at a standstill. An observer recalling the situation;


 ‘I remember the stench of the unscavenged streets - the corporation workers came out in sympathy –and of the truck loads of vegetables rotting at Edge Hill  Station. I remember bits of broken bottle, relics of battles down by the docks, the rain patter of feet walking the pavements when the trams ceased to run and clank, the grey Antrim lying on guard in the Mersey, the soldiers marching through the streets, special   editions of the evening editions of the evening papers coming out every half-hour, and American tourists, decanted from the Baltic, sitting at the Pier Head on their Saratoga trunks with no porters to carry them away’.44


 A further strike was declared on 18 August when the general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants announced the beginning of a national railway strike with the words ’War is declared, the men are being called out’.45


 Essential freight and foodstuffs had to be moved around the city in convoys, led by special constables under armed military escort, with Home Secretary Winston Churchill still trying to play down the seriousness of the strike, praising the local authorities for the continued movement of goods in a telegram to the Lord Mayor of Liverpool. However, when the city authorities requested that sailors from the Cruiser H.M.S. Antrim be put on standby to operate the Mersey Ferries in case the crews joined the strike, this option was denied by the Home Office.47


Early the following week the funerals took place of the two men killed who were both Catholics 48,and the funerals of Michael Prendergast and John Sutcliffe brought token halts to sectarian conflict when three hundred Orangemen and Protestants attended the funerals and the situation calmed. The Lord Mayor sent a message to the Home Office expressing his fear that ‘a revolution was in progress… and that anarchy prevailed.’49


Fierce negotiations between the railway companies, unions and the government took place at the Board of Trade in London over the weekend of 19 and 20 August. An agreement was reached and all railway workers were ordered to resume work on 21 August.


Problems still existed with other unions, primarily the tramway men, whose jobs had been replaced by non union members. Transport employers refused to reinstate the strikers, but because of the solidarity of the unions none of the transport unions would end the strike until the tramway workers were reinstated. Tom Mann led negotiations with the government at the Board of Trade and by the 25 August the tramway men had been reinstated to their jobs and the Liverpool Strike Committee issued instructions for a general return to work.50 Tom Mann expressed his views on the conclusion of the strike and its results.


‘We are pleased indeed with the result. We have had a ten weeks’ fight and we have gone through  some very strenuous times.  Allowing for the fact that we took on various sections of workers to help them ventilate their grievances and obtain redress, and having fought for and won substantial improvements for the men who originally came out’. 51   


Rioting and intimidation still occurred in the city. There were several outbreaks during the day in the Scotland Road district, when convoys and tramcars were attacked and troops had to be called out to control the crowds and police had to deal with cases of intimidation of people who refused to give evidence in riot cases.


However, the conveyance of goods by troops within the city ceased by 25 August and they were withdrawn from the streets as the city returned to something approaching normality.52The coroners inquest into the deaths of Michael Prendergast and Thomas Sutcliffe heard that Prendergast was probably shot by a member of the mob who had been seen firing rifles, and the troop of Hussars who had been assisting the convoy of prison vans were exonerated. The jury found that there was a dangerous riot occurring and that the discharging of troopers weapons was the only way to suppress it, and a verdict of ‘Justifiable homicide’ returned.53    


Additional loss of life occurred in the city as a result of an epidemic of diarrhoea in the city as a result of the non movement of foodstuffs that inevitably became stale. The movement of milk, and cleansing operations in the streets ceased. It is estimated that 6-7000 tons of rubbish remained on the streets and strikers compounded the problem by blocking up grids and gullies to prevent drainage. During the period July-September, 843 more deaths occurred than during similar periods over the previous five years.54 



1              Frow E. & Hikins H.  The Liverpool Central Transport Strike of 1911  Marxism  Today  March 1964  pp 78.

2              Ibid   pp 78

3              Bean R.  pp374   Employers Association in the port of Liverpool 1890-1914-British Library

4              Liverpool Journal of Commerce 28th June 1911

5              Ibid    30th June 1911

6              Frow E. & Hikins H.  The Liverpool  Central Transport Strike of 1911  Marxism Today March 1964  pp 79

7              John  A.H. Booth Man and Labour Relations

8              Daily Courier 29th June 1911

9              Ibid        

10            Cunard Papers, minutes of Executive Committee 20th July1911

11            Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury 22nd August 1911

12            Waller P. J. Democracy and Sectarianism        pp254

13            Taplin E. Near to Revolution The Liverpool General Transport Strike of 1911  pp12

14            The Times 9th August 1911 pp10

15            Frow E. & Hikins H   The Liverpool Central Transport Strike of 1911 Marxism Today March 1964  pp 81

16            Report by Head Constable of Liverpool to Home Office H/O 212470/7a

17            The Liverpool General Transport Strike 1911 pp17

18            Liverpool Watch Committee Minutes 9th August 1911 pp45

19            The Times 11th August  1911   pp8

20            H/O 212470/14/ ,  31/,    120/     

21            Hikins H.    The Liverpool General Transport Strike    pp20

22            Waller P. J.  Democracy and Sectarianism       pp255

23            Tom Mann  The Memoirs of Tom Mann  pp266

24            Fred Bower  The Rolling Stonemason  pp 196

25            Tupper E.     Seaman’s Torch pp 59

26            Tom Mann  The Memoirs of Tom Mann  269

27            The Times  14th August 1911

28            letter from W.H. Voules, Liverpool to avid Lloyd George M.P. H/O 212470/43

29            Ibid

30            Letter from F O’Brien, editor Liverpool Magazine to Home Secretary H/O 212470/103

31            Internet http://www.lancashire.police.uk/1909.html  accessed  10th May 2002

32            Liverpool Watch Committee Minutes 9th October 1911 recommending Kings Police Medal for  P.C. Phillips 

33            Liverpool Echo Monday 14th August 1911

34            Ibid

35            Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury 14th August 1911

36            The Times  15th August 1911

37            Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury      15th August 1911

38            Hikins H.  The Liverpool Transport Strike pp23

39            Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury      15th August 1911

40            Liverpool Daily Post     16th August 1911

41            Ibid

42            The Times   17th August 1911

43            The Times    18th August 1911

44            Cole M.  Growing up into revolution                

45            Liverpool Echo     18th August 1911

46            Home Office Telegram  H/O file 212470/69)  Hikins H.   The Liverpool Transport Strike

47            Home Office File H/O 212470/31) Hikins H.    The Liverpool Transport Strike

48            Bohstedt J. More than one working class: Protestant and Catholic Riots in Edwardian England  pp 173

49            Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury      21st August 1911

50            The Times     26th August 1911

51            The Times 25th August 1911

52            The Times    26th August 1911

53            The Times    01st September 1911

54            Report by E.W.Hope M.D. City of Liverpool Medical Officer of Health  1911 





A retrospective look at the Transport Strike


The Liverpool Transport Strike of 1911 was a turning point in industrial relations between employer and employee. The city had been divided by confrontations, both sectarian, that had occurred for nearly one hundred years, and industrial conflict,  within a harsh economic climate. The working class had taken on the employers for union recognition, improved pay and conditions, and had achieved a victory.


Liverpool did not have a major manufacturing base that would have provided stable continuous employment for its population. It was a major seaport and relied heavily on the trade and employment that incoming ships would provide for seafarers, dockers, warehousemen, carters and other transport based jobs; such employment was often casually based and people were employed and discarded on a daily basis.     


The Liverpool Transport Strike is highlighted by the fact that strikers were well led by union officials under the chairmanship of the Syndicalist union leader Tom Mann. The increased militancy and unprecedented industrial solidarity, even amongst Protestant and Catholic occurred because they had, in Liverpool a central theme, that of a class war. Mann’s aim apart from winning the strike, was to create a ‘permanent industrial solidarity on Merseyside’ as a first step to industrial unionism.1


Kynaston,2 believes that as events unfolded, Mann was forced to abandon his idea of a class struggle and concentrate instead on wage increases, better conditions and union recognition. The evidence to support this theory is that the men returned to work after the settlement of the dispute and did not continue on strike.


The seeds of the strike had been sown long before the summer of 1911, when Havelock Wilson the leader of the National Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union had planned strike action since 1910, with the intention of forcing the Shipping Federation to recognise the union for the purposes of collective bargaining on pay and conditions. The Shipping Federation had a strong anti-union policy and consistently treated seafarers harshly and Wilson waited for an upswing in trade from the recent depression which was complemented by a decrease in unemployment before he launched a campaign against the ship owners.3


Although Syndicalism was minimal throughout the country, Mann’s presence and leadership had ensured that it was well represented in major cities like Hull and Liverpool, and this is where the major conflicts of the transport strike occurred. On Merseyside there were a significant number of syndicalists within the National Union of Ship Stewards, and union officials Frank Pearce and Joe Cotter, both syndicalists,  worked closely with the Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union in the lead up to, and during the strike. Each group of workers supported each other’s claim in turn, and when Cotter’s members supported the striking seamen when they went on strike, it was the first time that seafarers had acted together.


 The work discipline imposed on the ships and docks was fearsome; bullying and corruption were widespread, and Eric Taplin placed great emphasis on the fact that the dispute was caused by the employers failure to recognise trade unions. The Transport Strike was solidly supported by the non-unionised north-end docks and this proved to be a major turning point in the dispute. Once the seamen went on strike, the dockers who previously had been instantly dismissed for joining a union,

took the opportunity to join the union, in the hope that union solidarity would gain them better pay and conditions, and arrest the bullying and intimidation that they were having to endure.4


All the separate groups of workers, with individual grievances drew strength from the solidarity from other workers and joined in the dispute, and it was the solidarity of the workers which forced the employers to enter into negotiations. Waller rightly claims that it was the new found union solidarity, particularly between the dockers and carters, rather than any syndicalist ideals that was the basis for the successful conclusion to the strike.5


It is noticeable that the new found strength and solidarity alarmed the press, with The Times referring to the growing union strength and the mass picketing as ‘sinister .. and open to coercion and disorder’. It described the events in the city as


  ‘Labour agitation gone mad…the situation appears to be rapidly and hopelessly from bad to worse …anarchy reigns in the city.’6


Tom Mann’s claim, that the sectarian barriers in the city began to be broken down as both Protestant and Catholics united in the interests of industrial solidarity, is very questionable. Both factions did come together to support the industrial dispute, but sectarianism continued in Liverpool for decades after the conclusion of the dispute. Initially, the relationship between the local police force and the strikers was good, but the response of the civil authorities to the initial strike and the action by the Birmingham Police only inflamed the situation, and relations between the local police and the general public took some time to recover.


The city had been calm, prior to the local Watch Committee giving permission to the Head Constable to call in extra police, who arrived on 10 August, (military forces arrived in the city shortly afterwards).The decision by the Head Constable to station police from Birmingham within the confines of St. George’s Hall on 13 August, contrary to an agreement reached prior to the event, and then to order the officers to baton charge the crowd appears to have been an extreme reaction to a minor disturbance.


Chapter two referred to the Head Constable’s inflexibility, and the fact that Bower in his book The Rolling Stonemason referred to the huge meeting taking place on 13 August as initially taking place in


   ‘A wonderful spirit of humour and friendliness…. All in their Sunday best, many men with their womenfolk.7  


If the police had not reacted to a minor incident, charged the crowd from inside St. George’s Hall, then possibly the events that unfolded could have been prevented.


 The result was a savage display of brutality by the Birmingham Police when they attempted to clear the Plateau and this proved the real catalyst for future trouble. The disturbances that followed resulted in the military becoming involved in dealing with the rioters and The Liverpool Echo called the events of 13 August;


  ‘as brutal, …the fighting savage… the labour trouble in Liverpool has assumed a dramatic and tragic development when appalling scenes of serious violence were witnessed in the streets of the city’8 


The serious trouble over subsequent days involved troops and police dealing with the reaction to the aftermath of the brutal treatment of the meeting of 13 August, together with continued sectarian violence resulted in the city being in turmoil, and this hardly shows the degree of unity of the working class that Tom Mann envisaged in his original statement of a class war on 14 June.


The Head Constable’s report to the City Council 1910-1911, produced in the latter part of 1911 does not give any additional information as to why the order for the police to charge the crowd was given, but by then Dunning had retired and the report was presented to the Council by the new Head Constable Francis Caldwell, Dunning  took the reasoning behind his decision on 13 August with him into retirement.9 


The report praised the 4142 special constables drawn from all ranks of society of whom 2847, had enrolled to protect their employers property, and 1295 had enrolled for general service with the full time police in the preservation of the peace.10  The Special Constables served until October when the Liverpool Watch Committee founded a permanent reserve of 1000 men.11


During the period 10-22 August, Hansard reveals that only two of the nine Liverpool M.P.’s, thought the situation serious enough to ask a question in the House of  Commons. T.P. O’Connor, the Nationalist member for Liverpool Scotland, asked a question in parliament about the brutality of the police, ‘I myself have been assaulted during the troubles’ and associated himself with the cause of the strikers. R. P. Houston the Conservative member for West Toxteth who asked a question about whether non union members who wanted to work could be safely moved around the city.12 O’Connor supported the strike because of the rioting and looting had occurred in his constituency, but Houston it appears supported the government.  


There was a mixed reaction in the city to the strike, and the riots during the week following the events on 13 August. The Liverpool Watch Committee’s minutes reveals  that it did not hold any additional meetings. It left control with the Head Constable who viewed both the repercussions from the riot on 13 August and the continued sectarian violence purely as a law and order issue.13


With a general strike in the city, the introduction of permits to move goods and services across city the deteriorating situation was viewed with alarm, both locally and at  government level.14 The permit system was really a working class control of the means of distribution, and even authorities in the city accepted that this was the only way to move goods; this was highlighted when the Head Postmaster asked the strike committee for permission to move mail via permit around the city.15


The City Council saw their authority in the city slipping into the hands of the strike committee and the Lord Mayor cabled the Home Office informing them that ‘a revolution was taking place in the city ….. and that anarchy prevailed’.


Porcupine recognised ‘the crimson flag of anarchy’, rioting and looting persisted and targeted in areas bordering the sectarian enclave dividing lines to affect shops and property of opponents religion, when shops and property belonging to people’s own religion survived.16


The government realised that the strike committee had taken the first step of organising the transport of goods for themselves; Hikins even suggests that if allowed to continue, it could have resulted in  social revolution, civil war and an end to state authority, a scenario that forced the government to take the only option open to it; that of persuading the employers, and owners to agree to union demands.17 This course of action had been promoted by Dunning in a communication to the Home Office prior to10 August when the initial contingents of police and military units arrived. 18


Dunning appears to have been a sensible person, and if his suggested course of action had been taken then matters would have been resolved peacefully.   Roger Geary concludes that the intervention of government during the strike was minimal and that the extra police were only sent to the city to ensure that the railway system continued to function.19 Churchill was not known for being indecisive, as he had reacted firmly to previous conflicts, and did so with the strike in Liverpool. The fact that apart from extra police and troops which had been sent to the city, a cruiser, H.M.S. Antrim was stationed in the Mersey, with another warship nearby, was a sign that the government meant business and were prepared to do what was necessary to restore order.    


Churchill, as Home Secretary was deeply involved in the dispatching of police and troops to the city and was determined, and is highlighted by his involvement in his discussions with the Lord Mayor over his refusal to allow sailors from H.M.S. Antrim to man the Mersey Ferries and work in the local power station.20 He had directed other recent conflicts at Tonypandy and Hull to crush dissent, and it was his plan to either, move goods, or, if possible move strike breaking labour around the city, in an attempt to keep the city moving with the intention of breaking the strike. There is no record of any anti union labour being moved around the city, this was entirely due to the solidarity of striking workers.21 The fact that Churchill did not order the sailors to man the ferries shows he  exercised a certain amount of caution when dealing with this matter for fear of inflaming the situation further. 


On the conclusion of the strike the local newspapers gave a balanced reflection of the strike 


          ‘the employing classes must realise the duty to the people that thy employ…. If the ship owners had been

            more sympathetic in dealings with the workforce the problem could have been resolved… the Shipping                                                 Federation as well as seeking the comfort of their passengers they should have an eye for the interests of their staff.’22


the challenge to the employers was also made to reform the working conditions on the docks to ensure regular stable employment. In reviewing the contributions of the Strike Committee and the Trade Unions, the newspapers highlighted the problems caused by    

                        ‘sympathetic and so called peaceful picketing’ with all the related intimidation of

                                workers that had become associated with this type of dispute.’23


Troops were withdrawn from the streets by 28 August but sporadic violence and looting continued for some time and sectarian violence and sporadic street clashes occurred continued up to the commencement of World War One.24


The Liverpool Transport Strike of 1911 lasted for nearly three months and brought the city to a standstill. It could have been avoided, but for the inflexibility of the employers to recognise trade unions and their right to represent the workers for improved pay and working conditions. The solidarity of the working men proved to be highly significant, particularly the support given by the non unionised north end dockers, and the employers were unable to break the strike, as they had done, on previous occasions by employing anti union labour.  


Violence occurred because the civic authorities and the government made the mistake of bringing in police from outside police forces, and the military to support them. Before their arrival the city had been calm and the use of the Birmingham Police to clear the Plateau on 13 August was a huge mistake.


After the conclusion of both the strike and hostilities, there was smouldering resentment in the city to the police and authorities .Austin Harford, an Irish Nationalist local councillor, a local councillor for the Scotland ward, complained that the police had behaved like ‘bashibazouks’ and the United Irish League in Liverpool petitioned the government for amnesties for persons convicted during the strike, for rioting and looting offences and he was supported in this campaign by John Walker the independent Protestant Councillor.


The relationship between the authorities, including the police and the general public was not helped by the Liverpool City Council voting £2000 in gratuities to injured policemen.25  National and local authorities were extremely worried as events unfolded, during August 1911. They were losing control of the situation, eventually having to force the employers to negotiate settlements to the dispute. With the hindsight of history however, the public authorities and private employers did not relinquish any real power or control following the eventual settlement of the strike.26


However, industrial relations in the city remained disturbed for some time after the Strike; relations between employers and employees remained uneasy up until the start of World War One with official and unofficial stoppages occurring on a semi-regular basis.27





1              Taplin E. The Dockers Union  pp100

2              Kynaston D. King Labour    pp164

3              Holton R. British Syndicalism pp90

4              Taplin E. Near To Revolution The Liverpool General Transport Strike 1911

5              Waller P. J. Democracy and Sectarianism pp 253

6              The Times 14 August 1911  pp7

7              Bower F.   The Rolling Stonemason  pp195

8              The Liverpool Echo 14 August 1911

9              Proceedings of Liverpool City Council 1910-1911 Vol2 Head Constable’s Report    pp 2198

10            Proceedings of Liverpool City Council 1910-1911 Vol2 Head Constable ‘s Report     pp 2193

11            Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury 12 October  1911

12            Hansard July 31 – Aug 22 1911 vol xxix      pp 1970       

13            Waller P.J.  Democracy and Sectarianism        pp255

14            Frow E. & Hikins H.  The Liverpool Central Transport Strike 1911 Marxism Today March 1964   pp86

15            Hikins H.  The Liverpool General Transport Strike 1911    pp26

16            Porcupine   19 August cited in Waller P.J. Democracy and Sectarianism   pp256

17            Hikins H.     The Liverpool General Transport Strike 1911  pp26

18            Waller P.J.  Democracy and Sectarianism pp 254

19            Geary R. Policing Industrial Disputes 1893-1985  pp33

20            Waller P.J.  Democracy and Sectarianism        pp256

21            Hansard July 31—22 Aug 1911  vol xxix   pp1918

22            Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury  25 August 1911

23            The Liverpool Echo  25 August 1911

24            Neal F.    Sectarian Violence     The Liverpool Experience  1819-1914 pp243

25            Waller P.J.  Democracy and Sectarianism         pp258

26            Waller P. J.   Democracy and Sectarianism   pp257

27            Waller P.J.   Democracy and Sectarianism  pp264






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