Friday, June 05, 2015

1915 London Tram Strike in New Cross

A hundred years ago this week, tram workers in London were sacked for going on strike and sent off to war. The London tram strike was prompted by the rising cost of living - the 7,000 strikers demanded a 'war bonus'.  The response of the employer, London County Council (LCC), was to sack all men of military age, telling them to volunteer for the armed forces.

The strike of drivers and conductors started out on Friday 14 May as an unofficial walkout at the New Cross depot - now the bus garage on New Cross Road - and soon spread across London (Sunday Mirror, 16 May 1915). The strike united workers from two rival unions - the London and Provincial Union of Licensed Vehilce Workers (known as the "red button men" ) and the "blue button" Amalgamated Union of Tramway Vehilce Workers'  (Daily Mirror - Monday 17 May 1915).

Pickets at New Cross depot (Daily Mirror, 17 May 1915)

The trams were the main source of transport for many workers to the Woolwich Arsenal, and it was reported that  'The New Cross men have made an offer to the L.C.C., which has been refused, to work cars each day to Woolwich for war munition workers without pay. The one condition was imposed — that the Council should allow the men to travel free'  (Liverpool Echo - Tuesday 18 May 1915)

Some trams did run to Woolwich:  'Extraordinary scenes were witnessed in South London yesterday morning as a  result of the tram strike. Heavy rain had been falling since an early hour, and thousands of people waited at different points in the hope of getting omnibuses, but the majority were doomed to disappointment. At New Cross, where cars labelled ' War munitions workers only" were running to and from Woolwich, great resentment was occasioned when only those producing Arsenal passes were allowed to board the cars'  (Newcastle Journal, 19 May 1915).  Strikers picketed the New Cross depot throughout the strike.

New Cross Road in the strike, by the depot (Sunday Pictorial, 16 May 1915)
On the last day of the strike, 'At New Cross about 1,200 strikers attended the Hatcham Liberal Club, when a resolution was adopted expressing confidence in the joint committee of the unions and determination 'to fight to a finish'.  One speaker complained that what was started a a 'strike' had now been made a 'lock-out' by the Highways Committee of the L.C.C. The men were advised to go back in the belief that their grievances would be dealt at once, but the L.C.C. were really taking the place of the Government by insisting on conscription' (Birmingham Daily Post, 1 June 1915).  The Daily Herald also reported 'a meeting in the Five Bells, at New Cross, the storm centre of the tram-men's strike'  (Daily Herald - Saturday 22 May 1915)

The strike took place at a time of increasing social tensions. In the same week there were anti-German riots in different parts of the country, in which shops run by Germans (or those with German-sounding names) were attacked, including in New Cross and Deptford:  'One result of the riots is a severe bread shortage. Near New Cross Gate so many bakers’ shops have been smashed that the police had be called yesterday to regulate the crowd which surged round the only shop in the neighbourhood where bread could be obtained' (Birmingham Daily Post - Monday 17 May 1915).

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