Wednesday, June 04, 2008

1891 Bus strike



The first person to try and organise the London tram and bus workers into a union, was a young barrister called Thomas Sutherst.

He managed, with considerable help from the London Trades Council to organise between two and three thousand tram workers, into The London County Tramway & Omnibus Employees union founded in 1889.

London had some 8-9,000 bus and tram workers in 1891, the three main London Tram and Bus companies running services in the Capital were the London Road Car Company, Tillings and the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC), the later the LGOC was by far the largest .

However, the LGOC was a notoriously bad employer, with employees sacked for “The slightest cause of complaint" crews were even expected to contribute to a fund to cover accidents, repairs and fines levied for any misdemeanours.

London bus and tram drivers wages in 1891 were 7 shillings a day and conductor 4 shillings 6 pence, this was comparatively low compared to other manual workers. They also worked long hours, between fourteen to sixteen hours a day with as little as ten minutes for lunch.

However, it was the introduction of new ticket machines that sparked the first ever London bus and tram strike in July 1891. The issue being the ability of the conductors to keep a percentage of the fares to subsidise their meager earnings.

Two mass meetings were called by the union, both starting after midnight, to enable crews to meet their shift obligations.

Over 3,000 bus and tram workers attended the first mass meeting at Fulham Town Hall in first week of June 1891 and a second meeting the following day at the Great Assembly Hall, Mile End Road

The Trade Unionist magazine of 6th June 1891 reported the Fulham Town Hall meeting and included the following remarks

“Great excitement prevailed during the whole meeting and speakers were frequently interrupted with snatches of song, Brakes and private buses conveyed the men to their different districts of London in broad daylight”

The London County Tramway & Omnibus Employees, union demands included

12 hour day

One clear day off every fortnight

A weeks notice of dismissal

Abolition of stoppages for accidentals

Daily wage of

Drivers 8 shillings a day

Conductors 6 shillings a day

Horse keepers & Washers 5 shillings a day

When their demands were not met, the first London bus and tram strike commenced at midnight on Sunday 7th June 1891.

The strike seemed to have secure generally high level of support from the public, media and the vast majority of bus and trams crews answered the strike call. Some men remained at work, but their efforts to take the buses and trams out were frustrated by the “angry mobs” of strikers.

The strike soon spread to bus crews in other companies, the London Road Car Company, who came out on strike in sympathy and demanding the 12 hour day.

London's other bus and tram company Tillings, was unaffected by strike and continued to run a normal service, having agreed to the unions terms earlier.

One area of surprising support for the strikers came from the "entrepreneurs" who organised "Pirate buses", far from undermining the strike, they actually maintained the strike by paying large donations to the strikers to keep the strike going, thereby pocketing large profits, while providing only a limited service.

On the second day of the strike the bus and tram unions President, Thomas Sutherst met the LGOC and LRRC directors to discuss the strikers demands, they agreed a 12 hour day but no significant movement on pay.

The London bus and tram workers continued the strike for the rest of the week finally securing the following agreement.

12 hour day

Drivers 6 shillings 6 pence a day (after one year)

Conductors 5 shillings a day (after one year)

Horse keepers and washers 5 shillings 6 pence

As well as Thomas Sutherst, George Shipton Secretary of the London Trades Council “worked day and night addressing meetings and organising pickets” collected nearly £1,000 for the strikers

The "Great Bus strike" was called off on Saturday 13th June 1891, after one week on strike, final agreement was reached on the 18th June 1891, however the return to work had not gone smoothly, some activists had been victimised and despite Sutherst assertion at Fulham Town hall that their would be no resumption of work until every union member reinstated, this failed to materialise and despite the efforts of even the Lord Mayor.

While the strike was not totally effective in secure all its demands, importantly the union had won the right to a 12 hour day as well as putting down a marker for future generations of bus and tram workers.

After the strike had concluded The London Trades Council agreed to pay £10 towards Fred Hammill costs while he organised the busmen’s union in the Capital.

One interesting aspect of the strike was the attempt by a group of strikers to establish a London Co-operative Omnibus company to rival the private enterprise giants.

They even purchased an omnibus to the front they attached a broom symbolising how they were determined to sweep the LGOC and LRCC away

Thomas Sutherst the unions President called for the "municipilisation" by the Council and arguing tat the council should buy the whole tram lines and rolling stock, as had happened in Huddersfield (The first municipal tram system opened in January 1883)

The demise of Sutherst, London County Tramway & Omnibus Employee union was the result of the general, onslaught by the employees after the original flame of "New Unionism" that had spilt out the London Dock Strike of 1899.

J. Hibbs states in his book that
“In its short life it was a useful on
e and it was responsible for considerable improvement in working conditions of bus and tram crews”

Later a Bus, Tram, Motor Workers Union merged with the London Cab Drivers Union (the later established in 1894) to form the

London & Provincial Union of Licenced Vehicle Workers (LPU) established in 1913 but also known as the “Red Button Union” because of the colour of their union badge. The L PU was strongly influenced by syndicalism, and distinguished itself from the start as a highly political union, supporting nationalization of transport and opposing world war, while supporting the Russian revolution of 1917. The LPU was prominent in the August 1911 London strike wave that hit the capital as well as the 1915 Tram strike.

While the union was now dominated by tram workers it maintained a separate London cab owners section under the leadership of branch secretary Blundy .

The LPU's Journal was entitled the "Licensed Vehicle Trades Record", edited by George Sanders and produced fortnightly and cost 1d.

The other union to have membership amongst London Tram workers was the Manchester based Amalgamated Association of Tramway & Vehicle Workers (AAT) established in 1889.

The AAT tram union (which had members in West London at Chiswick, Hanwell and Fulwell) secured a larger base in London when it merged with the small London Tramways Employees Association in 1910. The AAT was known as the“Blue Button Union” again because of the colour of its union badge.

See the article by John Grigg on the April 1909 Fullwell Tram strike led by Jack Burns

In late 1919 early 1920 The LPU (109,425 members) and AAT (56,979 members) merged in to form the United Vehicle Workers.

The United Vehicle Workers union became part of the Transport & General Workers Union on its establishment on January 1st 1922.


Radical Aristocrats by Ken Fuller

J.Hibbs history of British bus service 1968

Thomas Sutherst had been active in the Shop hours Labour League and I believe a candidate for Liverpool West Toxeth for the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (now RMT)

George Shipton founder and secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Housepainters & Decorators

A referenace is made (London Illustrated News 13th June 1891) to a women in the East End Mrs Reaney organsing East End tram workers and Mr Sutherst in the West London

The LGOC main rival was the London United Transport but the LUT did not arrive until 1894

The LPU and later TGWU cab section had the highest ratio of Communist Party members in any workplace in Briatin

First Tram in London 1860

First electric Tram Croydon 1901

Last (old) Tram 6th July 1952


Bus and Tram June 1891*
Tram strike May 1915
Bus strike May 1917

Tram Bus Tube Women Workers August 1918 (see picture above)
Tram and Bus strike March1924 (23,000 LGOC bus)

Bus and Tram May 1926 (General strike)
(see cartoon)
Bus LGOC January 193
Bus May 1937 "Coronation strike"*
Bus strike May 1958*
Bus overtime ban
Bus and Tube strike
1982 Bus and Tube10 March "Fares Fair"

Major London Bus/Tram strikes 1891, 1937 and 1958

Bert Papworth

Albert (Bert) Papworth was known to his colleagues as “Pappy”. He was born into a Catholic family. stating his involvement in the trade union movement was down his uncle “My uncle was a Christian Socialist, a Bible Reader and Lay Preacher. He hated injustice.

Bert Papworth started his union activities at the tender age of 16, becoming a Municipal & General Workers union branch chairman , he led his first strike at Morgan Crucible in 1916 for “equal treatment”. Later he organised for The Workers Union at Woolwich Arsenal from 1917-1918 where he was also involved in strike action. He once again was involved in the Municipal Workers at the Gas Light & Coke Company in 1923

As an unemployed man he refused to take work except at trade union rates. “I would not blackleg those who were working”

In 1927 Papworth secured employment with the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC) and soon became the branch secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) at Chelverton Road Bus Garage, Putney, South London (one of London’s oldest bus depots).

His reputation for organising and speaking soon won him the trust of his colleagues from across London.

In 1932 The London General Omnibus Company, used the opportunity of the world wide depression to seek a two and half to five percent pay cut and the loss of 400 jobs.

Discussions dragged on until August when the TGWU leadership , fearing the use of non unionised labour and having secured the principle of an eight and half hour day signed.

The more militant elements amongst the London Busmen responded by supporting Communist Minority Movement resolutions opposing the deal and in July restarting the Busmen’s Punch, as a result of this eight or nine busmen joined the Party.

A month later on the 12th August 1932, the Busmen’s Rank & File Movement (RFM) was established and mass meetings of busmen at Penge, Stratford, Holloway, Battersea and other venues

While Papworth was undoubtedly a major figure in the establishment of and the RFM other key activitists included Bill Jones a Communist at Dalston Garage, Frank Snelling of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and Bill Payne of Dalston while the RFM was a “united front” organization it in reality worked closely with the Communist Party, indeed the technical Editor of the Busmen’s Punch now selling 8,000 copies a month was Emile Burns of the Communist Party.

1932 Communist Party had 40 members amongst the London busmen one cell at Cricklewood and Chelverton garage’s in 1932 a number of individuals at Holloway, Edgware, Enfield and Willesden, including Bernard Sharkey an ex policemen sacked during the infamous 1919 police strike. The Party members working under the guidance of George Renshaw London District Industrial Organiser of the Communist party.

At the TGWU bi annual delegate Conference Papworth spoke effectively on the need for a “United front” against the growing menace of Fascism, so well in fact that the leadership, who opposed the motion were defeated.

Building on this success and his growing power base amongst the London Busmen Papworth was elected to the TGWU national Executive in 1935

When the fascist threat materialised in Spain when Franco and his fascist allies Hitler and Mussolini attempted to seize power, from the democratically elected Government Papworth was keen to support the Republican Government, joining a delegation to visit Spain in 1937 visiting Barcelona, Alicante, Valencia and Madrid, his experience in Spain deeply affected.

“I beg you to do something to help the people of Spain. Create such an agitation that the (British) National Government shall either fall beneath it or be forced to render justice to a friendly country and a friendly democratic government. Please help Spain

It should be recorded that at least one London Busman, Bill Brisky (Communist Party member) from Dalston had risen to the rank of Company Commander in International Brigade and was killed at Jarama in February 1937 defending liberty in Spain (as did a number of other TGWU members including George Brown from Manchester killed at Brunete in July 1937 and ken Bond of London at Ebro in July 1938. Jack Jones a future General Secretary of the TGWU also fought in the International Brigade.

On Papworths return from Spain, he threw himself into the campaign to secure a seven hour day and to the issues of speed, meals, relief’s, stand time and weekend working.

Issues agreed at a Special Delegate Conference of London Busmen in December 1936. Management refused to negotiate and a London wide busmen’s strike started at midnight on April 30th 1937, lasting until the 28th May, as this period included the George V1 Coronation as King the strike became known as the “Coronation strike” .

The strike itself ended in defeat and while defeat may have been evitable, given the economic climate, the defeat was impounded, because of the role of the TGWU right wing General Secretary’s Ernest Bevin who was “tacit” in collaborating with management. Primarily, because Bevin both feared the power of the London Busmen and it’s Communist leadership

After the strike, Bevin moved swiftly to expel the London strike leaders from the TGWU, Bert Papworth(CP Calverton), Bill Jones(CP Dalston) garage) and William Payne were all expelled from the TGWU for life, Hayward, Bernard Sharkey (CP Willesden garage); Bill Ware (CP Enfield garage) were debarred from holding office in the TGWU until 1942 and Mark Cravitz barred from holding office in the union until 1940.

The expulsion were ratified at the TGWU Torquay Bi-annual Delegate Conference in July by 291 votes to 51. Bevin then moved to marginalise the Communist Parties ninety eight members in London's twenty eight Garages.

The London busmen’s simmering anger at the role of TGWU leadership and Bevin in particular, lead to the formation of a breakaway union by radical elements within the London Busmen (around Snelling, Payne and Hayward) promoted by the unlikely avowed right wing union leader W.J Brown of the Civil Service Union (who later briefly joined Mosley’s New (fascists) Party)

The breakaway union, established in February 1938 was called the National Passenger Workers Union and had some immediate success. crucially, Papworth and the Communist Party recognized the “opportunism” of Brown and remained loyal to the TGWU.

Bevin always a pragmatist allowed the expelled Communists (Papworth Joined the Communist Party only after the1937 Coronation strike) to rejoin on the understanding that they would fight the break away union and this they did with vigor.

The left, Unity Theatre produced a highly successful play based on the strike “Busmen” which chronicled the struggle for sped up and pay cuts to the defeat in 1937 written by Herbert Hodge a London taxi driver and Montagu Slater, Alan Bush provided the music.

Despite the defeat of the strike, defeats in Spain and expulsion, Papworth kept up his commitment to anti fascist work joining the Co-coordinating Committee for Anti-Fascist Activity along with, Bill Jones (TGWU London Busmen), Harry Adams (Building workers union); R Bringshaw (NATSOPA Printers); Leah Manning (Teachers union); Ellen Wilkinson (Labour M.P); D.N.Pritt and the secretary John Strachey.

It was this Committee that organised the huge counter demonstration to Mosley Hyde Park Rally on 9th September 1937, over one million leaflets were produced in aid of mass mobilisation, primarily by the Communist Party’s publicity officer Bert Williams an ex miner.

The result was a staggering 100,000 anti fascists (including many London busmen), faced up to Mosley’s 2,500 fascists, protected by 6,000 police

During the war Papworth like so many other Communists gave their total support to the war effort and the need to increase productivity Papworth stating

“Our Russian comrades are working worse schedules than ours in the tanks on the battlefield in the East. They are fighting our battle”

Soon after their readmission to the TGWU both Papworth and Jones were elected to the TGWU National Executive (Papworth for the second time)

And in 1944 Bert Papworth was elected to the TUC General Council, as the first out Communist to be elected to the TUC General Council.

Walter Holmes in the Daily Worker of the 20th October 1944 states

“His busmen comrades call him “Pappy” but he is anything but what that might imply....The TUC General council certainly won’t find the first Communist member A. F. Papworth a sleeping partner”

(Bill Jones was also later elected to the TUC General Council)

In 1958 another major London bus strike was called, the first full strike since the "Coronation strike" of 1937.

Papworth won three "gold medals" for services to the TGWU

Bert Papworth died 18th May 1980

Ben Smith Hayes First Middlesex County Councillor was an officer of the LPU

Michael Walker


Radical Aristocrats London Busmen by Ken Fuller and Country Standard

First woman bus driver since the War

Mrs Rosamund Viner aged 22 passed her test May 1974 started on the chessington to Ealing route inJune 1974