by John Grigg
Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 4 (1985)
At the turn of the century the public transport system on the roads of West London was that of the London United Tramways Company. Their trams clattered from Hammersmith to Hounslow and Uxbridge, from Hanwell to Brentford and down to Hampton. The service was good and cheap and the Company employed 1,200 drivers and conductors who worked a 63-hour week for six shillings a day. Sometimes men were on duty for 10 hours without a meal break and continuous duties of 20 hours were not unknown. The Company employed “spots” whose job was to spy on employees and report breaches of regulations – like eating in the cab – and many suspensions and dismissals resulted from this system. The Amalgamated Union of Tram and Vehicle Workers was not recognised by the Company and agitators for recognition were discouraged or dismissed. There were plenty of jobless men waiting to take up any vacancy.
Despite the difficulties the union began recruiting and on Saturday 3 April 1909 Jack Burns, full-time secretary of the West London branch, wrote to the Company chairman, Sir Clifton Robinson, asking for an interview to discuss the growing discontent amongst the employees. Sir Clifton refused to meet Mr Burns, saying that he would only meet employees of the Company. Jack Burns wanted to discuss the men’s demands which included union recognition, a six-day week, time and a quarter for rest day working, improvement in wages, re-instatement of men discharged because of their connection with the union and the putting of the tramcars into proper working order.
At the Fulwell Depot talk of an immediate strike began but the men approached Sir Clifton again, this time asking him to receive a deputation of twenty employees headed by Jack Burns and a Mr Watson, another union official. This was also refused; Sir Clifton was only willing to see the twenty employees. The drivers and conductors knew about the fate which had befallen previous employees who had led deputations.
After an angry meeting on Easter Saturday at the Fulwell Depot, which went on until 3 am, the men decided to strike immediately. Jack Burns believed the other depots at Hanwell and Chiswick would support the action and pickets were despatched to those depots. It is not clear why Fulwell was the centre of the agitation but it could be because a former employee at Fulwell, who also lived nearby, had been sacked for his union activities. He may also have been the local union secretary.
The strike might have been successful if Jack Burns had addressed similar meetings at the Hanwell and Chiswick depots. The Company, however, had acted quickly to stop the strike spreading. The handfuls of pickets sent to Hanwell and Chiswick were not effective and as men reported for work they were required to sign a petition of loyalty to the Company. Two men at Chiswick who refused to sign were dismissed. At Hanwell the men were offered an extra day’s pay to take over trams normally run by the Fulwell men. The Company took on extra workers and immediately dismissed all men who were taking part in the strike. Jack Burns went to Hanwell and Chiswick and persuaded a few men to join the strike but it was too late.
Nevertheless, on Sunday morning a large crowd of strikers and their wives and children gathered outside the Fulwell depot. Several local strike-breakers were booed but when three tramcars full of strike-breakers from Hanwell arrived the crowd became angry. As the vehicles began to be brought out of the depot some of the women broke through the police lines and ran at the trams, screaming threats at the drivers. It slowly dawned on the strikers that they were not going to win. In the evening trouble began as returning trams had their windows smashed by stones from catapults, and orange peel was hurled at the men from Hanwell who had taken the Company’s bribe. The women supported the men throughout the struggle and joined in a march to Chiswick, taking their children with them.
On Easter Monday 2,000 people stood outside the depot jeering and hooting but eventually just standing in disgust as their colleagues ran the service for the Company. Sir Clifton Robinson gave triumphant interviews to the local press and blamed the union for misleading the men into a strike which resulted in their dismissal. There were, he pointed out, two men waiting for every job that became vacant. Worse was to come because the strike had not been considered by the union’s executive council; it was therefore unofficial and strike pay was not available. Some dismissed employees tried to sue the union.
But that was not the end of the affair. For the next three weeks mass meetings were held, mainly in Hounslow, where the employees’ grievances were aired. A march of dismissed Fulwell strikers to hand back their uniforms went through Hounslow and Brentford to Chiswick and brought much publicity. The union continued to recruit.
In May questions were asked in Parliament as a result of the strike and Winston Churchill, President of the Board of Trade, answered that there were no regulations concerning the number of hours that tram-drivers might work at a stretch. Nothing was done about the hours but further questioning resulted in a new regulation which obliged the police to be satisfied of a man’s driving ability before he could drive a tram. Before that the Company could put anyone from the street into the driver’s seat. Nothing was done, however, to help those men who were sacked – apart from meagre collections amongst the public and those still employed by the Company.
The strike failed partly because Jack Burns’ oratory was only heard at Fulwell and the men would have been well advised to wait until the views of the other depots were known before they stopped work. The strike also foundered because the Company could take men straight from the unemployment lines and put them into the trams without any training. The courage and solidarity of Fulwell was in the end overwhelmed by the pressure of poverty and unemployment which forced men to come forward to take the strikers’ jobs.
The local press, particularly the Chiswick Times, attacked the union for spoiling the pleasure of the public over the Bank Holiday. The press also set up Sir Clifton Robinson as a local hero who had triumphed against overwhelming odds. The Union was displayed as a demon which had misled innocents to their destruction. The Chiswick Times managed to find a well-known local trade unionist who was reported as saying, “Personally, I do not believe in strikes. They are a thing of the past. The fact that during the last eight years there has been a decrease in the wages of the workers in the country as a whole proved conclusively that strikes are absolutely hopeless. Trades Unionism has lost its grip and if the workers of the country want to bring about better conditions for themselves, they must do it through the ballot-box”.
There was a depth of tragedy and despair in those remarks – some might call it realism – but it was the spirit of the Fulwell men rather than the practicality of the “well-known local trade unionist” that saw the Labour Movement through to its triumph in the end. The local events of 1909 might help to show us the right path to take at this end of the 20th century.