Police Strikes 1918 and 1919

David Lloyd George
Striking police officers in 1918
The Lambeth Branch of the National Union of Police and Prison Officers Declaring 'Tyranny is not discipline.'
Michael V Dixon
Wallington Branch's belief that 'Unity is Strength'
Michael V Dixon
Police on sit-down strike: Police have been banned from striking since 1919 when almost every constable and sergeant refused to go on duty, causing havoc in London and Liverpool
Daily Mail

In 1918, the so-called Spirit of Petrograd, Sylvia Pankhurst, cried upon hearing that her long-time tormentors in the police force were themselves on strike. “The London police on strike? After that, anything can happen,” she said.

Back then, a London policeman’s wage was comparable to that of an agricultural worker or unskilled labourer. The cost of living had more than doubled during the first world war, but police had received a pay rise of only 3 shillings since 1914.

“We policemen see young van boys and slips of girls earning very much more than we get,” said a policeman during the 1918 strike, “and, well, it makes us feel very sore.”

This was compounded by large numbers of police officers having been sucked into the army, placing a greater strain on those left at home. They ended up working a 96-hour week, with leave restricted to one day a fortnight.

And so, two months before the end of the war, police officers went on strike for the first time.      www.theguardian.com

Prelude to 1918 Strike

The police had a rough time during the War. Added to the already existing draconian discipline there was a massive amount of unpaid overtime and cancellation of leave. At the same time their wages had lagged far behind inflation. By 1918, police constables with 20 years’ service were receiving lower wages than the average rate for unskilled labourers before overtime. In such a situation petty corruption was rife; for many policemen it was a choice between accepting the occasional backhander from local bookmakers and publicans for looking the other way, and starving.

The union had a largely underground existence until 1918, although five union members had been sacked in December 1916. In February 1917 there were a further 17 dismissals following a raid by the military police on a meeting of the London Branch of the Union.

The National Union of Police and Prison Officers had been founded in 1913 by ex-inspector John Syme. Syme, a notable figure in radical circles, who had been victimised in 1909 for ‘undue familiarity’ with his men, had been waging a campaign for his re-instatement ever since.

The first strike started on August 30th, 1918. There were two issues: the dismissal of PC Tommy Thiel for union membership, and the demand for a wage increase. One of the first stations to be affected was Kings Cross Road, where meetings were held in the station yard, the men then forming a procession and marching to Whitehall.

The strike spread like wildfire. Over half the men at Upper Street Station joined in immediately, and within a few hours 6,000 men throughout London were out, and with more joining all the time; even the Special Branch was affected.

August 31st began with a mass meeting of nearly 1,000 strikers at the Finsbury Park Empire. These then marched to Whitehall where they joined up with contingents from other parts of London. The men’s delegates negotiated directly with Smuts and Lloyd George; the authorities caved in; the wage demand was conceded and Tommy Thiel was reinstated. The men returned to work triumphant.


In 1918 the Metropolitan Police had gone on strike over recognition of its union.  Syme a former inspector of the Metropolitan Police had been dismissed after he supported 2 constables who had been sacked. It was only the personal intervention of the Prime Minister David Lloyd George that ensured the strike lasted less than a day. As the country was still at war with Germany it was decided that the issue of a police union could be postponed until after hostilities had ended.

As far as union recognition was concerned, Lloyd George stated that this could not be granted in time of war. The fact that Lloyd George had met, and settled the dispute, with the union leaders was viewed by union president James Marston as de facto recognition of the union.

The authorities had been caught unawares by the first strike and used the breathing space created by the settlement to prepare for the next round. General Cecil Macready was appointed Metropolitan Commissioner and he used the ensuing months to get ready.

Macready immediately began reorganising the command structure of the police. As far as Macready was concerned the days of the NUPPO were numbered. Militants were isolated, moderates won over, and a number of partial reforms introduced.

Macready did nothing to encourage talks with the union. He refused to recognise both James Marston, the president of NUPPO, and Jack Hayes, the general secretary. As far as Macready was concerned the police had had a grievance that was now settled, and NUPPO remained an unofficial body therefore they were not to be dealt with. When everything was ready the authorities introduced a new Police Bill which, apart from wages, nullified the men’s gains.

The Desborough Committee

A committee under the Chairmanship of Lord Desborough was convened to look at pay and conditions of all forces throughout England and Wales.

One of the things the  committee highlighted was the inconsistency in police pay. At the time, there was no uniform pay  structure for the police. Local Watch  Committees were the sole arbiters of police pay. The pay of agricultural workers and unskilled  labourers had outstripped that of the police. The Desborough Committee recorded that the pay for the average constable serving in a provincial force with five years service  who was married with two children was 2 pounds 15 shillings [£2.75], including  all their allowances such as rent and a child allowance. The Desborough Committee cited examples that a  street sweeper in Newcastle-on-Tyne  was on the same rate of pay as a constable in the provincial force.  Ten other examples cited by the committee also  showed the police were paid less than menial labour occupations, six of which  paid higher than the Metropolitan Police.  Lord Desborough was, therefore, quite  sympathetic to the plight of the ordinary policeman regarding pay and, consequently, recommended comparatively generous increases.

By the  end of 1918 and into 1919 it seemed that all the unions, large and small, were  active in disputes throughout Britain. By mid-1919 there were strikes, or the  threat of strikes, on the docks and among railway and other transport workers. There was a nation-wide bakers strike and a  rent a Bolshevik revolution had arrived in Britain. The government could not afford the  possibility of the police aligning themselves with another union or the TUC. The government thus interpreted labour discontent, including the police, as a sign of disloyalty and was determined that it would  not be caught napping a second time.

The Police  Act of 1919

The Police  Act of 1919 was the death knell of NUPPO and the Police Federation was  established to replace the union. Under the Act, NUPPO was outlawed as a  representative body for the police and forbade them from belonging to a trade union. NUPPO had no options but to fight or fold; unsurprisingly, it chose to  fight. This time, however, it was the union that misread the mood of the men  when it called for another strike.

The 1919 Strike

The second police strike started on July 31st, 1919. It was a disaster. Out of a force of 18,200 men in the Metropolitan Police, only 1,156 participated in the strike, all of whom were instantly dismissed, and although a bitter struggle continued for some time for example, strikers broke into the Islington section house to force the inmates to join them, eventually being forcibly ejected. The strike was absolutely crushed, and along with it the Police Union. The sacked men never got their jobs back.

There had been considerable support for the 1919 strike from the socialist movement, but many supporters, looking back on police harassment, or police inaction while they got bashed by ‘jingoes,’ felt a bit awkward – to put it mildly – with their new allies.

The Police Act of 1919 made it illegal for the Police and Prison Officers to belong to or affiliating to a trade union as well as forbidding the officers from taking industrial action or discussing the possibility of strike action with colleagues. The Police Federation was established under the 1919 Act to deal with employment grievances and provide representation to police officers.

Over the decades, governments have believed the police would never strike, relying on the goodwill of officers adhering to the maxim of Robert Peel, the creator of the modern police force, who said: “The police are the public, the public are the police.”

Professor Robert Reiner, of the LSE believes the 1918/19 unrest is doubly instructive: ‘The police won’t strike because they know the public are worried about the chaos it would cause.’

Sometimes a strike produces calm, he says, sometimes violence. ‘In London 1918 there was no noticeable effect on crime and disorder, in 1919, just a year later, there was rioting.’ Perhaps this is why the vast majority of police officers refused to take strike action?

The eventual outcome of the strikes of 1918 and 1919 benefited police workers. They received a pay increase that doubled their wages and the government was forced to take notice of their issues, establishing the Police Federation in the process. The two strikes also increased the government’s awareness of the importance of the police in terms of the government’s own stability. After 1919, the police were never again taken quite as for granted, as they had been in the years before.

Events in Liverpool

Liverpool City Police, however, supported the strike.  Of the 1,874 members of the Liverpool City  Police, 954 went on strike. The Bootle police union claimed that 69 out of 70 officers  had joined the strike. The grievances of police in Liverpool were for many years ignored by a local Watch Committee noted for its disciplinarian attitude, which  helped foster the propensity for collective action. The poor conditions in the Liverpool Police  were well-known amongst other forces in England. On the day the strike started in Liverpool, strikers formed into ranks and decided to  march on police stations around the city in an attempt to persuade those not on  strike to join them. Police strikers found themselves confronting fellow officers that had not joined the strike, some of whom were union members. The consequences for the people of Liverpool were  far greater than those in the capital. Left without an effective police presence,  public order in some areas broke down and resulted in what the Liverpool Daily  Post called ‘an orgy of looting and rioting’. This continued for three or four days before the military, aided by non-striking police, brought the situation under control but at the cost of several lives and more than 200 arrests for looting.The final outcome of the strike was that every man who had gone on strike throughout the country was dismissed from his respective force. Not one striker was reinstated anywhere and all lost their pension entitlements.