Skip to main content

Strikes and Power in Britain, 1870–1920*

  • James E. Cronin

Not long ago, sociologists and labor economists used to talk confidently about the “natural history of the strike”. By that they meant its rather smooth progress along a line that supposedly rose rapidly in the early stages of industrial growth, gradually flattened out with the establishment of stable collective bargaining, and slowly fell as the strike proceeded to “wither away” in the prosperity of “advanced industrial society”.

    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Strikes and Power in Britain, 1870–1920*
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Strikes and Power in Britain, 1870–1920*
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Strikes and Power in Britain, 1870–1920*
      Available formats
Hide All

1 Hobsbawm, E. J., “Economic Fluctuations and Some Social Movements since 1800”, in Labouring Men (London, 1964); F. Boll, “International Strike Waves: A Critical Assessment”, in: The Development of Trade Unionism.

2 For a useful review under that very rubric, see Evans, E. W. and Creigh, S. W., “The Natural History of the Strike in Britain”, in: Labour History, No 39 (1980).

3 On the quality of UK strike statistics and the methods involved in gathering classifying them, see Knowles, K., Strikes (Oxford, 1952);Creigh, S. W., “The Origins of British Strike Statistics”, in: Business History, XXIV (1982).

4 For some of the detail, see my “Coping with Labour, 1918–1926”, in: Social Conflict and the Political Order in Modern Britain, ed. by Cronin, J. E. and Schneer, J. (New Brunswick, 1982).

5 Bevan, G. Ph., “The Strikes of the Past Ten Years”, in: Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, XLIII (1880);Howell, G., “Great Strikes: Their Origin, Costs, and Results”, in: Co-operative Wholesale Societies, Annual for 1889, p. 310.

6 Wright, Th., “On the Condition of the Working Classes”, in: Fraser's Magazine, New Series, IV (1871), p. 427.

7 One implication of this recurring pattern is that the tension between entrenched union leaders and rank-and-file activists is a long-term, indeed structural, aspect of labor history, not peculiar to any particular moment, but to those various periods when workers on the shop-floor perceive a possibility of advance beyond what the leaders have come to expect. Ideological factors, generational differences, degrees of bureaucratization, and government policy all help to condition and mediate this tension, but its roots seem to me to go much deeper. The evidence for this view is scattered widely throughout the record of labor history, but one might begin the study of the unofficial character of virtually all insurgencies with George Howell. He claimed in 1890 that “It is perhaps a bold thing to say, but the statement can be made with considerable confidence, that in ninety per cent, of the strikes which take place, the men directly concerned are the instigators and promoters, and that the union is the brake on the wheel which prevents too great precipitation, and liability to consequent failure.” See Howell, G., The Conflicts of Capital and Labour, 2nd ed. (London, 1890), p. 211, for the specific instance; and, for a more general argument to this effect, Sabel, Ch., “The Internal Politics of Trade Unions”, in: Organizing Interests in Western Europe, ed. by Berger, S. (Cambridge, 1981).

8 See Porter, J. H., “Wage Bargaining under Conciliation Agreements, 1870–1914”, in: Economic History Review, Second Series, XXIII (1970);Davidson, R., “Social Conflict and Social Administration: The Conciliation Act in British Industrial Relations”, in: The Search for Wealth and Stability, ed. by Smout, T. C. (London, 1979).

9 For the most recent overview, see Hunt, E. H., British Labour History 1815–1914 (London, 1981).

10 Dobson, C. R., Masters and Journeymen. A Prehistory of Industrial Relations 1717–1800 (London, 1980), esp. the appendix listing strikes; Rule, J., The Experience of Labour in Eighteenth-Century England (London, n.d.), pp. 147–93.

11 Ch. Tilly, “Britain Creates the Social Movement”, in: Social Conflict and the Political Order, op. cit.

12 Rose, A. G., “The Plug Plot Riots of 1842 in Lancashire and Cheshire”, in: Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, LXVII (1957);The Chartist Experience, ed. by Epstein, J. and Thompson, D. (London, 1982);Prothero, I., “William Benbow and the Concept of the ‘General Strike’”, in: Past & Present, No 63 (1974);Brown, B., “Lancashire Chartism and the Mass Strike of 1842: The political economy of working-class contention” [Center for Research on Social Organization, University of Michigan, Working Paper 203] (1979);Calhoun, C., The Question of Class Struggle (Oxford, 1982).

13 Perkin, H., The Origins of Modern English Society (London, 1969), pp. 380407,Tholfsen, T., Working-Class Radicalism in Mid-Victorian England (London, 1976),Fraser, D., Urban Politics in Victorian England (Leicester, 1976), and Joyce, P., Work, Society and Politics (Brighton, 1980), provide useful information on the organization underpinnings of urban politics. On unions and strikes, see National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, Trades' Societies and Strikes (London, 1860); Dutton, H. I. and King, J. E., Ten Per Cent and No Surrender (Cambridge, 1981);Price, R., Masters, Unions and Men (Cambridge, 1980);Holbrook-Jones, M., Supremacy and Subordination of Labour (London, 1982).

14 Richter, D. C., “Public Order and Popular Disturbances in Great Britain, 1865–1914” (University of Maryland, Ph.D. thesis, 1965), pp. 3031;Storch, R., “Popular Festivity, Social Protest and Public Order: The Devon Food Riots of 1867” (Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies Meeting, Los Angeles, 04 1979).

15 Richter, , “Public Order and Popular Disturbances”, pp. 85, 260;Potter, G., “Strikes and Lockouts from the Workman's Point of View”, in: Contemporary Review, XV (1870), pp. 3435, quoting Brassey; id., “Trades Unions, Strikes, and Lockouts. A Rejoinder”, ibid., XVII (1871), p. 535.

16 See Fraser, W. H., Trade Unions and Society (London, 1974), pp. 167–97, for a brief survey of the law regarding strikes; also Orth, J., “Striking Workmen before the Courts, 1859–1871” (University of North Carolina, School of Law, unpublished paper, 1980); Trades' Societies and Strikes, op. cit. The comments on Bevan are in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, XLIII, pp. 55–64. On the public support for the Newcastle engineers, see Burnett, J., Nine Hours' Movement. A History of the Engineers Strike in Newcastle and Gateshead (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1872), and, more recently, Allen, E. et al., The North-East Engineers' Strikes of 1871: The Nine Hours' League (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1971). On political economy, see also Pollard, S., “Trade Unions and the Labour Market, 1870–1914”, in: Yor shire Bulletin of Social and Economic Research, XVII (1965), which makes a rather pessimistic argument on the ability of unions to increase labor's share of national income. See also Howell, G., “Strikes: Their Cost and Results”, in: Fraser's Magazine, New Series, XX (1879), p. 767.

17 “The Journeyman Engineer”, “The English Working Classes and the Paris Commune”, in: Fraser's Magazine, New Series, IV, p. 62.

18 Quoted in Potter, “A Rejoinder”, loc. cit., p. 529.

19 Bevan, , “The Strikes of the Past Ten Years”, loc. cit., p. 45;Lees, L. H., “Strikes and the Urban Hierarchy in English Industrial Towns, 1842–1901”, in: Social Conflict and the Political Order.

20 Bevan, , “The Strikes of the Past Ten Years”, pp. 3942; Cronin, , Industrial Conflict in Modern Britain, op. cit., pp. 159–61 and, on mining in particular, pp. 179–83.

21 On these two issues, see Garside, W. R. and Gospel, H. F., “Employers and Managers: Their Organizational Structure and Changing Industrial Strategies”, in: A History of British Industrial Relations 1875–1914, op. cit.; Ch. Wrigley, “The Government and Industrial Relations”, ibid.

22 These statistics were taken originally from the Department of Employment and Productivity, British Labour Statistics: Historical Abstract, 1868–1968 (London, 1971). They also appear, together with extensive strike statistics, in Cronin, , Industrial Conflict in Britain, pp. 206–38.

23 Cronin, J. E., “Stages, Cycles, and Insurgencies: The Economics of Unrest”, in: Processes of the World System, ed. by Hopkins, T. K. and Wallerstein, I. (London, 1980).

24 See Table 1 for details, as well as Bevan, , “The Strikes of the Past Ten Years”;Howell, , “Great Strikes”, loc. cit.; Report on Strikes and Lockouts in 1888. On the iron and steel workers, see Howard, N. P., “Cooling the Heat: A History of the Rise of Trade Unionism in the South Yorkshire Iron and Steel Industry, from the Origins to the First World War”, in: Essays in the Economic and Social History of South Yorkshire, ed. by Pollard, S. and Holmes, C. (Barnsley, 1976).

25 On shipbuilding, see Clarke, J. F., “Workers in the Tyneside Shipyeards in the Nineteenth Century”, in: Essays in Tyneside Labour History, ed. by McCord, N. (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1977); on agricultural workers, see Howell, , “Great Strikes”, pp. 301–03;Groves, R., Sharpen the Sickle! The History of the Farm Workers' Union (London, 1949), pp. 3992.

26 Howell, G., Labour Legislation, Labour Movements, and Labour Leaders (London, 1902). More generally, see Hunt, , British Labour History, op. cit., pp. 304–15, where the contrast between the new unionism and the old is reviewed. Hunt generally opts for the “revisionist” perspective, which minimizes the difference between the two, but the evidence he marshals nevertheless makes clear that the labor movement was very different after 1889 than before.

27 See Lewenhak, S., Women and Trades Unions (London, 1977);Hunt, , British Labour History, pp. 299300.

28 See Wigham, E., The Power to Manage (London, 1973), pp. 2962, on the Engineering Employers' Federation; Saville, J., “Trade Unions and Free Labour: The Background of the Taff Vale Decision”, in: Essays in Labour History, ed. by Briggs, A. and Saville, J. (London, 1960), more generally.

29 Wrigley, Ch., The Government and Industrial Relations in Britain 1910–1921 (Loughborough, 1979), p. 5, quoting Buxton. On rank-and-file movements and Syndicalism, see Holton, B., British Syndicalism, 1900–1914 (London, 1976), and Masters, Price, Unions and Men, op. cit., pp. 238–67. For the view that the unrest was a matter of the trade cycle and little else, see Pelling, H., “The Labour Unrest, 1911–1914”, in Popular Politics and Society in Late Victorian Britain (London, 1968). See also Brown, E. H. Ph., The Growth of British Industrial Relations, 1906–1914 (London, 1959).

30 The general pattern of strikes is most clearly indicated in Askwith, G. R., Industrial Problems and Disputes (London, 1920).

31 Thus, if one calculates the ratio of the number of trade unionists (in thousands) to the peak number of strikes during strike waves, one gets the following pattern of dramatic decline: 1873–;73–1.01; 1889–90– 0.77; 1911–13–0.36. No doubt part of the drop reflects underlying shifts in the organization of industry, and a further part the spread of organization from craft to semi- and unskilled occupations and the attendant sectoral differences entailed in that, but a portion of the change must certainly be attributed to a genuine relationship between organization and strikes.

32 See, for example, Phillips, G. A., The General Strike (London, 1976). A view much closer to that expressed here is contained in Brown, H. Ph., The Origins of Trade Union Power (Oxford, 1983), pp. 6888.

33 The beginnings of such an interpretation are presented in my “Labour Insurgency and Class Formation: Comparative Perspectives on the Crisis of 1917–1920 in Europe”, in: Work, Community, and Power. The Experience of Labor in Europe and America, 1900–1925, ed. by Cronin, J. E. and Sirianni, C. (Philadelphia, 1983).

* This essay stems from a continuing research project on strikes in Britain. The first stage of the project involved a quantitative analysis of long-term strike patterns and was published as Industrial Conflict in Modern Britain (London, 1979). The second, and still ongoing, stage involves an attempt to refine and illustrate the argument first adumbrated in Industrial Conflict in Modern Britain through a more detailed study of strikes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The first fruits of this effort appeared as “Strikes, 1870–1914”, in: A History of British Industrial Relations 1875–1914, ed. by Ch. Wrigley (Brighton, 1982). The analysis was extended and put into a more comparative perspective for presentation to the 1981 Tutzing conference on the development of trade unionism in Europe. This appeared as “Strikes and the Struggle for Union Organization: Britain and Europe”, in: The Development of Trade Unionism in Great Britain and Germany, 1880–1914, ed. by W. J. Mommsen and H.-G. Husung (London, 1985). Subsequently, I have had the opportunity to re-focus the argument upon Britain in papers for the conference on comparative strike movements at the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme in June 1982, and for the Anglo-Dutch Labour Conference in 1984. The present essay stems from the latter meeting; a longer, and presumably definitive, treatment will appear with other papers from the Paris conference in a volume to be edited by Leopold Haimson and Charles Tilly for Cambridge University Press.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Review of Social History
  • ISSN: 0020-8590
  • EISSN: 1469-512X
  • URL: /core/journals/international-review-of-social-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed