Swindon and the General Strike


Factory Walls I always thought the Factory walls in Swindon
Had a welcoming, warm and friendly feel,
Even in the low sun days of midwinter.
For this was a railway town,
A Great Western Railway Company town,
A paternalistic railway company town,
With swimming baths and a hospital,
And a blue print for the NHS;
A Park for exercise and amusement too,
And the Mechanics Institute
For education, reading and advancement.

So, when I started train spotting, aged six,
In that halcyon summer of 1958,
With my in-built respect for the GWR,
And its Western Region successor,
And all its chocolate and cream nostalgia,
How could I have known about the General Strike,
In Swindon, thirty-two years before?

When we placed pennies on the line,
To see how the Cheltenham Flyer
Would burnish and flatten those spare coins,
And when Sir Felix Pole, Castle class, 5066,
Rode rough shod over those pennies,
How could I have known that Sir Felix
Was a real person from thirty-two years before?
How could we have known about him and the General Strike?

To a boy in 1958,
1926 was more like the nineteenth century,
And yet, oddly, or perhaps not oddly,
In that 1950s Light Programme world,
I grew up knowing and singing the hit songs
of that Sir Felix Pole year of 1926:
‘Bye, Bye, Blackbird’;
‘When the Red, Red Robin
Comes bob, bob, bobbin’ along’ …

And gramp had been in the First World War, of course,
But he never talked about it, of course,
And when your dad had been behind Japanese lines
In jungle warfare just over ten years before …
What was the First World War?

‘Let’s go trainspotting.’
‘No. Let’s play war.’
No one said:
‘Which one?’

But these are songs of innocence:
What of adulthood and experience?

Well …
The post-war lead up to the General Strike
Sounds depressingly familiar:
A government sets up an inquiry (into the mines),
Promises to follow the inquiry’s recommendations,
Doesn’t like its recommendations;
It’s sympathetic to employers,
Who want wage cuts and longer hours,
Another inquiry follows,
With a TUC desperate to avoid a general strike,
A government preparing for a general strike,
A right-wing Chancellor of the Exchequer
(By name, one Winston Churchill),
A right-wing Daily Mail editorial:
‘A General Strike is not an industrial dispute. It is a revolutionary movement which can only succeed by destroying the Government and subverting the rights and liberties of the people’ …

Print workers refuse to print it,
The government says this is interference
with the freedom of the press …
The General Strike begins in May 1926 …
A few fascists in the streets,
Racist abuse of the Communist MP,
Shapurji Saklatvala
(who would speak at Swindon),
Warships in the ports,
Tanks in the streets as well as fascists,
Troops in the docks,
Special constables trained in armed combat,
Poor relief denial threat to strikers,
University students’ finals to be judged favourably
If they ‘volunteered’ as strike-breakers,
The BBC effectively censored,
Imprisonment for Saklatvala
(His May Day speech derided the union jack:
A flag for ‘fools and rogues’,
And called on troops not to fire on strikers).

The strike started quietly in Swindon,
But resentment grew in the town
After an official GWR notice was put up
At the Temple Street NUR HQ;
The notice politicised the strike
As ‘a deep conspiracy against the state’;
And as regards railway re-employment
after the strike’s eventual end:
Loss of position, status, pay,
With the threat of damages, costs, and the sack
For leading trade unionists;

The end of the strike saw Swindon steadfast:
They would not accept the GWR Company’s terms,
And stayed out for another two days;
But a four-day week followed,
Reinstatement of strikers was perfunctory;

A mass meeting of thousands followed
at the recreation ground in Princess Street,
Where a proposal was endorsed about
The ‘disapproval of the spirit in which the GWR
has met the settlement of the General and Railway Strikes …’
For it wasn’t just blue-collar staff who had been out,
80% of the clerical grades had been out too,
And they were living under threat of dismissal.

Some railway employees would be out of work
For well over a year; some forced to move;
Some downgraded;
Nearly all facing wage cuts;
Family life and budgets disrupted;
This was how men who had fought for king and country
In a war that had ended just eight years before
Were treated – for they were ‘railway servants’, after all;
‘Will you please note that during the period of the Strike
passes must only be issued for Company business.
Privilege tickets may be issued to members of the loyal staff
in cases of emergency only, such as serious illness,
Or death in family, but on no account to those on strike.’
Some people were sent to Coventry, of course,
While for the upper-class volunteers,
The strike wasn’t just class war,
It was also a jolly good bit of fun,
Playing with real live grown-up train sets,
But the new year edition of the Swindon Citizen,
Reviewed the previous year thus:
‘… we consider the Company’s action was entirely contrary
to the Strike settlement and to various National Agreements’,
[The GWR was the most steadfast of the Big Four railway companies]
‘…we suggest Sir Felix Pole should now go a step further
and grant the customary marriage dowries
which have been withheld from certain women strikers
at Swindon and elsewhere’.

How could I have known that when I copped Sir Felix Pole,
Intransigent Sir Felix Pole,
5066, trainspotting in 1958,
Underlining name and number in my Ian Allan book?
Or that this locomotive was once 5066 Wardour Castle,
Built Swindon 1937,
Renamed Sir Felix Pole 1956;

How could I have known that even then,
Trudging along the platform and lineside,
Were men who would have this on their records even then:
‘Remained loyal during strike’?
It wouldn’t have been many.

How could I have known that Sir Felix John Clewett Pole (1877-1956),
Commenced his working life as a telegraph operator at Swindon,
In 1891, the year my gran and gramp were born?
He sounds very grand with a name like that,
But he was the son of a teacher,
And he resigned from the GWR in 1929,
So strained were his relations with the top brass,
Which shows just how gung-ho they must have been.
What did Sir Felix Pole, once a telegraph-boy,
Later, Head of Staff and Labour Department 1912,
Assistant General Manager 1919,
General Manager 1921,
Knighted 1924,
Feel about experiences such as these
Back in his Wiltshire home county:
‘The strike meetings were held in the park
And the picketing took place at the main entrance’?
For him, it was trespassing on company land.
And what did he feel about the following?
‘The Reverend K Crisford, who was a curate at St Marks,
preached a sermon against the railway companies
and the Government and supported the strikers.
After the service he walked to the park in his cassock and surplice
with supporting parishioners to address a strike meeting.’
He was probably pleased to hear, however, that,
‘He was forced to leave after the strike
and members of the congregation went up the hill to Christ Church’.

And how could I have known about all of this,
When one of the first songs I learned at my mother’s knee
Followed these (ambiguous?) railway lines:
‘Down at the station,
Early in the morning,
See the little engines
All in a row,
Man with a green flag,
Blows upon his whistle,
Peep, peep, peep,
And away we go’.

Whether that man with the green flag was a guard,
Or strike-breaking upper-class volunteer
Is immaterial, however,
To what was going on behind the scenes:

Ex officio negotiations with the TUC were going on;
The government was considering legislation
To illegalise a general strike …
This just a few short days after the start of the strike,
When down in Swindon’s 300 odd acre railway factory,
Where nearly fully 25% of the 57,000, population worked,
WA Stanier, Works manager, would hose down
Apprentices who went on strike at the tunnel entrance,
And CB Collett, Chief Mechanical Engineer,
Would issue this notice:
‘In view of the large number of men who have failed to report themselves
for duty these works are hereby closed until further notice’;
It wasn’t just the GWR, of course;
Swindon printers and tram workers were also called out
On the first wave of industrial action;
The Co-operative Society rooms in Harding Street
Became an HQ for coordination of picketing,
And accounting of the Distress Fund, for fully 10,000 people,
By the Swindon General Council:
‘Magnificent solidarity’ was the initial synopsis.

On the other side, there stood, resolute,
The Swindon Volunteer Services Committee;
Whilst troops and police were offered to the GWR;
But Collett informed the Swindon NUR branch:
‘I don’t want them. If you gentlemen sitting here are prepared
to assist me in protecting the property,
I am prepared to do without them.’
The NUR:
‘We at once gave him that guarantee.’

Beyond the railway works,
Disagreement and confusion simmered
Over the withdrawal of the electricity supply,
But despite this,
The Swindon Advertiser commented on May14th:
‘The town has been very quiet and orderly.
The police have had no trouble whatsoever’:
Despite, or probably, because of
The daily round of mass meetings in the parks,
The sports matches, the tournaments,
The concerts, the readings, the entertainments …
It was a peculiarly British general strike in Swindon, too …

And so, in a Swindonian version
Of the old Skimmington cavalcade,
Whereby transgressors of a local moral code
Were lampooned in effigy and with rough music,
Some strike breakers were honoured with a procession:
A mock funeral cortege that wound its way
To the council rubbish tip for ‘cremation’;
The coffins were embellished,
By wives, mothers, daughters, grand-mothers and aunts,
With curtains or cloth, and wreaths of nettles
And dandelions for floral decoration;
The cortege was followed by some thousand people,
While every street showed its approbation,
With the police granting permission
And controlling the traffic
Around ‘Manchester Road, the Centre and down by The Ship’;
Traditional rough music, the beating of pots and pans,
A derisive cacophony and pandemonium,
Greeted the cortege on its way to Morris Street,
And mock funeral service and cremation:
‘May the wind blow their remains to the corners of the earth,
And to hell with them all’.

Cars, motor-cycles, side cars and bicycles
Were also used to transport the British Worker down to Swindon,
While Friday May 7th would see a report to the TUC,
After the famous Ben Tillett addressed a large rally in the town:
‘Position at Swindon splendid.
Spirit … 100%.
Any other national leaders coming this way
we shall be pleased to accommodate.
Demand for larger supplies of British Worker.
Our lines of communication … excellent.
We have made certain arrangements for your despatch riders to obtain petrol. The CWS here have fixed us up splendid.’
As regards the Swindon and Wiltshire press,
It was scant, and British Gazette in tone and some content;
The North Wilts Herald would later fulminate
About the withdrawal of the fuses at Moredon power station,
And consequent immobilisation of the printing presses:
‘an amazing action in which Swindon,
so far as we have been able to ascertain,
stands alone among all the civic authorities of the country’;
People didn’t stand alone on the Milk Bank
by the railway station, however;
Crowds would jeer as volunteers drove passing trains,
With women to the fore, aprons full of stones,
To lob at strike breaking footplates;

But money was tight with strike pay low,
And none at all for those not called out until the second wave,
But unable to work because of the impact of the first wave;
That rainy day had arrived for that money put by,
While ‘feeding centres’ and the Coop Distress Fund,
And some churches and chapels all helped out,
Despite the GWR notice of Monday May 10th,
Describing the strike as a ‘deep conspiracy’,
Not against the company, but ‘against the state’;
A notice as intransigent and uncompromising
As the one put up outside the NUR Temple Street HQ,
With its conditions about employees returning to work,
And consequent penalties.

In according and predictable consequence,
There was a mass meeting in the railway park,
While the government stiffened its resolve,
As did Swindon Corporation,
With twelve naval pensioners drafted in,
To restore the fuses at Moredon power station;
More mass meetings followed:
At the GWR Park; at the Mechanics Institute;
At Princess Street Recreation Ground;
The second wave of strikes was called out;
The strike was rock solid both in Swindon and on the GWR;

So, it was a bolt from the blue on Wednesday 12th May:
The General Strike was called off.

Victory was presumed at first,
Until the full facts came through in the afternoon.
A meeting was called for the next day at the Park:
GWR employees would stay out
In the face of Sir Felix Pole’s obduracy,
Hoping for guarantees on reinstatement,
And release of strikers arrested and in prison;
Feelings were running sky high in the town,
Crowds gathered when trams were seen in the streets,
Stones once more were hurled from women’s aprons,
And the Rodbourne tram was nearly overturned
By demonstrators down near the Centre.
But the end was nigh.

Labour Fete Day followed;
Company threatening terms were attenuated;
But a four-day week followed,
So, with short-time working
And reinstatement stymied by the GWR,
Another mass meeting followed,
At Princess Street Recreation Ground,
With a formal resolution articulating
‘Disapproval of the spirit in which the GWR has met
the settlement of the general and railway strike’;
And as we said before,
At the time, 80% of clerical staff were on strike
And all under the fearful presumption
That they might not be reinstated,
In this blue-collar and white-collar
Display of Swindon solidarity.

I always thought the Factory walls in Swindon
Had a welcoming, warm and friendly feel,
Even in the low sun days of midwinter.
For this was a Railway town,
A Great Western Railway Company town,
A paternalistic railway company town,
With swimming baths and a hospital,
And a blue print for the NHS;
A Park for exercise and amusement too,
And the Mechanics Institute
For education, reading and advancement.

So, when I started train spotting, aged six,
In the halcyon summer of 1958,
With my in-built respect for the GWR,
And its Western Region successor,
And all its chocolate and cream nostalgia,
How could I have known about the General Strike,
In Swindon, thirty-two years before?

But I know more now.
And those factory walls, and that Park,
And those railway lines,
Won’t have quite the same welcoming, warm, and friendly feel.
For a while.

The GWR and the General Strike C.R. Potts Oakwood Press
The General Strike ed. Jeffey Skelley Lawrence & Wishart especially chapter 9 on Swindon by Angela Tucket
The General Strike Day by Day Keith Laybourn Sutton Publishing