Monday, March 09, 2020

'We demand the right to live a little longer' - The 1937 Bus Strike in South London

The London Bus Strike in 1937 saw Transport and General Workers Union members walk out demanding a reduction in the length of their working day from 8 to 7.5 hours. 30,000 bus workers were employed by the the London Passenger Transport Board (made up of private companies), and the strike was solidly supported, starting on 1 May. The Daily Worker summarised the strikers' case:

'"We demand the right to live a little longer" With this unanswerable claim the London busmen support their claim for a 30 minute reduction in their working day of eight hours... That the health of busmen is affected and their lives shortened by existing conditions of labour is not an exaggerated claim, but a plain statement of fact... during the five years ended 1935, 3,785 busmen left the industry... Of these 877 died at an average age of 52, while 1,006 were discharged through ill health at an average age of 46 years... This is the story of speeding up. To safeguard their health the bus-men ask that their working day be reduced by 30 minutes. In making this moderate claim the workers point out that the safety of millions of people, whose lives are daily placed in their hands, is bound up with the winning of this claim. The employers maintain that the claim cannot be met on financial grounds, yet last year alone a profit of £7,474,000 was made by the undertaking' (DW, 30 April 1937).

The Central Bus Committee of strikers called for tram and trolley bus workers to join the strike, but the Union Executive, headed by Ernest Bevin, refused this and called off the strike after four weeks without the main demand being  met.

In South East London, the union seems to have been organised in two areas. Division A1 covered the bus garages at Camberwell, Nunhead and Old Kent Road.  The Daily Worker reported on some of the activities that kept the strikers occupied:

  • 'men are well occupied with concerts and whist drives. Mass  meeting on Friday at the Co-op Hall, Rye Lane (DW 14 May 1937)
  • Cabaret and dance at Oliver Goldsmiths School, march  from Camberwell to Peckham planned (DW 20 May 1937)
  • Demo planned from Wren Road, Camberwell Green. 'free hair cut service by local talent instituted in Nunhead' (DW 21 May 1937)
  • 'The boys are all in good spirits. Holding cricket match this afternoon, Peckham Rye and a concert on Friday at the Co-op Hall' (DW 27 May 1937)

Division A3 covered the garages at Plumstead, Sidcup, Catford and Bromley. Activities here included a 'Splendid demonstration to Lewisham' from Eltham Green (DW 20th and 21st May 1937).

The site of the old Nunhead bus garage on Nunhead Lane, near to Peckham Rye:

A plaque on the building reads: 'On this site stood a Garage for the Steam buses whichh the National Steam Car Company Limited opened in 1911. The Clock tower is a replica of the one which existed until 1999' 

Nunhead Bus garage seems to have been quite a militant workplace. Workers there were active in the 1926 General Strike, with the Camberwell Strike Bulletin (10 May 1926)  reporting that 'On Sunday morning, about 400 strikers from the Nunhead Bus Garage paraded in military formation to the Central Hall, Peckham, where a Church Service was held. All the men wore 1914–18 War Decorations – many of them wearing as many as six medals'.  In 1935, an unofficial bus workers strike started at Nunhead and spread to involve 5,000 workers. The garage was closed by London Transport in 1954 though it continued as a private coach depot into the 1970s and was used as a location in the final series of  popular early 70s sitcom 'On the Buses'. The building was demolished to make way for flats in 1999.