British police strikes in 1918 and 1919

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Picture of Sir Edward Henry, who ordered the banning of the police union. Siredwardhenry.jpg
Picture of Sir Edward Henry, who ordered the banning of the police union.

The police strikes of 1918 and 1919 in the United Kingdom resulted in the British government putting before Parliament its proposals for a Police Act, which established the Police Federation of England and Wales as the representative body for the police. The Act barred police from belonging to a trade union or affiliating with any other trade union body. This Act, drafted and passed into law, was passed in response to the formation of the National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO). A successful police strike in 1918 and another strike in June 1919 led to the suppression of the union by the government. On 1 August 1919, the Police Act of 1919 passed into law. Only token opposition from a minority of Labour Members of Parliament was voiced in Parliament. [1] :26

United Kingdom Country in Europe

The United Kingdom, officially the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland but more commonly known as the UK or Britain, is a sovereign country lying off the north-western coast of the European mainland. The United Kingdom includes the island of Great Britain, the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland and many smaller islands. Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with another sovereign state‍—‌the Republic of Ireland. Apart from this land border, the United Kingdom is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, with the North Sea to the east, the English Channel to the south and the Celtic Sea to the south-west, giving it the 12th-longest coastline in the world. The Irish Sea lies between Great Britain and Ireland. With an area of 242,500 square kilometres (93,600 sq mi), the United Kingdom is the 78th-largest sovereign state in the world. It is also the 22nd-most populous country, with an estimated 66.0 million inhabitants in 2017.

Parliament of the United Kingdom supreme legislative body of the United Kingdom

The Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known internationally as the UK Parliament, British Parliament, or Westminster Parliament, and domestically simply as Parliament, is the supreme legislative body of the United Kingdom, the Crown dependencies and the British Overseas Territories. It alone possesses legislative supremacy and thereby ultimate power over all other political bodies in the UK and the overseas territories. Parliament is bicameral but has three parts, consisting of the Sovereign, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. The two houses meet in the Palace of Westminster in the City of Westminster, one of the inner boroughs of the capital city, London.

Police Federation of England and Wales

The Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW) is the statutory staff association for police Constables, Sergeants, Inspectors and Chief Inspectors in the 43 territorial police forces in England and Wales. Under UK labour law, the police are prohibited from joining ordinary trade unions to defend pay and working conditions, by the Police Act 1996, because of the view that a police strike would pose an exceptional public safety risk. The PFEW was originally established by the Police Act 1919 as an alternative system, which would serve to represent staff, and where disputes could be resolved through arbitration so long as the government continued to bargain in good faith.


The police strikes took place at a time of social unrest, which was widespread in several English-speaking nations and colonies during 1919 in the first year after the Great War. Racial riots against blacks broke out in Liverpool, London and seven other major ports. In some cases, African and Caribbean British were competing with Swedish immigrant workers, and both with native men from the British Isles. The union and racial violence against blacks, including police strikes, also occurred in major cities in the United States, Caribbean and South Africa in this period. The economic competition of veterans trying to re-enter the job market and social displacement after the war heightened racial tensions and was expressed through riots of whites against blacks. [2]

World War I 1914–1918 global war originating in Europe

World War I, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as "the war to end all wars", it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.


In 1870, police in Newcastle upon Tyne were recorded as 'in dispute' with their local Watch Committee over conditions of work and low pay, though they did not withdraw from duty. Two years later in 1872, 179 men of the Metropolitan Police refused to report for duty. They were protesting the poor conditions of their service and low pay, as had the police in Newcastle upon Tyne. The police were back on the beat within hours. Of the 179 men who refused duty, 69 were dismissed from the force. The rest were allowed back on duty after having had apologised for their conduct. They gained improvements in pay and conditions. This action was significant for establishing a precedent for collective action by police in order to improve working conditions.

Newcastle upon Tyne City and metropolitan borough in England

Newcastle upon Tyne, commonly known as Newcastle, is a city in Tyne and Wear, North East England, 103 miles (166 km) south of Edinburgh and 277 miles (446 km) north of London on the northern bank of the River Tyne, 8.5 mi (13.7 km) from the North Sea. Newcastle is the most populous city in the North East, and forms the core of the Tyneside conurbation, the eighth most populous urban area in the United Kingdom. Newcastle is a member of the UK Core Cities Group and is a member of the Eurocities network of European cities.

Metropolitan Police Service territorial police force responsible for law enforcement in Greater London

The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), formerly and still commonly known as the Metropolitan Police and informally as the Met, is the territorial police force responsible for law enforcement in the Metropolitan Police District, which currently consists of the 32 London boroughs. The MPD does not include the "square mile" of the City of London which is policed by the much smaller City of London Police.

The 1872 work stoppage did not result in the formation of a police union. Most of the police would not have considered forming a union, as they considered the police a quasi-military institution. Despite the tens of men dismissed after the 1872 strike, members of the Metropolitan Force later took action again. In July 1890 they conducted a work stoppage over low police pensions. The government argued that it would not be held hostage by their demands, but Parliament passed the Police Pensions Bill (1890) to address inequities, in a matter of weeks.

Formation of NUPPO

In the early 20th century, workers in many different fields sought better conditions. In the September 1913 issue of the Police Review, an anonymous letter announced that a union was being formed. Rank-and-file officers began secretly joining the union. The police immediately dismissed anyone found to be a member. But the fledgling union appealed to the rank and file, and membership increased. On the eve of the 1918 strike, NUPPO claimed a membership of 10,000 out of an over-all strength of 12,000 in the Metropolitan Police.

Police Review was a weekly magazine for police officers in the United Kingdom, latterly published by Jane's Information Group. The magazine was founded in 1893 as The Police Review and Parade Gossip, aiming to 'cultivate the self-respect of the constabulary of this country, to raise them in the esteem and regard of all their fellow citizens'. Since its foundation, the magazine was published every week without fail, celebrating the appearance of its 6000th issue on 10 October 2008. On 18 November 2011 Police Review ceased publication in all forms.

Commissioner Sir Edward Henry responded by issuing an official police order banning the union and promising instant dismissal to anyone found to be associated with it. The national government also announced its opposition. The Home Secretary and the Commissioner believed that the threats of dismissal from the force and loss of pension rights would be an adequate deterrent. But, by August 1918 the Metropolitan Police went on strike.

Edward Henry British police commissioner

Sir Edward Richard Henry, 1st Baronet, was the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis from 1903 to 1918.

Home Secretary United Kingdom government cabinet minister

Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department, normally referred to as the Home Secretary, is a senior official as one of the Great Offices of State within Her Majesty's Government and head of the Home Office. It is a British Cabinet level position.

A commissioner is, in principle, a member of a commission or an individual who has been given a commission.

Dismissal of Police Constable Thiel

The police dismissed Police Constable Thiel, a prominent member of the force and a union organiser, for union activities. This action was a catalyst for the 1918 strike, a spark for many grievances over pay and conditions. The authorities grossly underestimated the strength of rank-and-file support for positive action to address their grievances and to defend Constable Thiel. The day before the strike began, Police Superintendents reported at their weekly meeting with the Commissioner that all was quiet in the force.

The 1918 strike

The executive of NUPPO demanded a pay increase, improved war bonuses, extension of pension rights to include policemen's widows, a shortening of the pension entitlement period, and an allowance for school-aged children. The most significant issue was that NUPPO be officially recognised as the representative of the police workers. NUPPO informed the authorities that unless their demands were met by midnight on the 29 August, they would call a strike. The strike of 1918 caught the government off guard at a time of domestic and international labour unrest.

The swiftness of the strike and the solidarity of the men shocked the government. By the next day, 30 August, 12,000 men were on strike, virtually the entire complement of men in the Metropolitan Force. The government deployed troops at key points across the capital in response and its priority was to end the strike. Prime Minister Lloyd George, who had been in France when the strike started, called a meeting on the 31st with the executive of NUPPO, and the strike was settled that same day. The terms of the settlement included an increase for all ranks of 13 shillings [65p] per week in pensionable pay, raising the minimum to 43 shillings [£2.15]. The right to a pension was reduced from 30 years' service to 26 years' service, and widows were awarded a pension of 10 shillings [50p]. A war bonus of 12 shillings [60p] per week was granted, and a grant of 2 shillings and sixpence [12 12p] for each child of school age was given. Constable Thiel was reinstated.

All NUPPO's demands had been met except official recognition of the union. Outside London there had been no strikes. But policemen in Manchester threatened to strike; they were offered and accepted the same terms given to the Metropolitan Police. By October, several other police forces around the country had been given pay increases. An immediate consequence of the strike was the increase in union membership, which jumped from 10,000 in August to 50,000 by November 1918.

As far as union recognition was concerned, Lloyd George stated that this could not be granted in time of war. The fact that Lloyd George had met, and settled the dispute, with the union leaders was viewed by union president James Marston as de facto recognition of the union.

As a consequence of the 1918 strike, Sir Edward Henry, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police resigned and was replaced by a serving soldier, General Sir Nevil Macready. Macready immediately began reorganising the command structure of the police. As far as Macready was concerned the days of the NUPPO were numbered. He had the comforting knowledge that, given the circumstances in which his appointment was made, he was to have carte blanche in his dealings with the NUPPO and its officials. Macready did nothing to encourage talks with the union. He refused to recognise both James Marston, the president of NUPPO, and Jack Hayes, the general secretary. As far as Macready was concerned the police had had a grievance that was now settled, and NUPPO remained an unofficial body therefore they were not to be dealt with.

In an attempt to circumnavigate the union, Macready established representative boards for police officers. In instituting the boards, Macready had neither consulted the government nor the Union. These boards would consist of one delegate from each of the twenty-six divisions within the Metropolitan force – all of whom were to be elected by secret ballot. The NUPPO executive demanded once again that NUPPO be officially recognised. With the approval of the Home Office, Macready lifted Police Orders ban barring police from joining NUPPO, but added an addendum forbidding union members from interfering with police discipline or imploring police to withdraw from duty.

Desborough Committee and 1919 strike

The government announced that a committee be convened under Lord Desborough that would look at all aspects of police forces in England, Wales, and Scotland. One of the things the committee highlighted was the inconsistency in police pay. At the time, there was no uniform pay structure for the police. Local Watch Committees were the sole arbiters of police pay. The pay of agricultural workers and unskilled labourers had outstripped that of the police. The Desborough Committee recorded that the pay for the average constable serving in a provincial force with five years service who was married with two children would earn 2 pounds 15 shillings [£2.75], including all their allowances such as rent and a child allowance. The Desborough Committee cited examples that a street sweeper in Newcastle-on-Tyne was on the same rate of pay as a constable in the provincial force. Ten other examples cited by the committee also showed police were paid less than menial labour occupations, six of which paid higher than the Metropolitan Police. Lord Desborough was therefore quite sympathetic to the plight of the ordinary policeman regarding pay, and consequently recommended comparatively generous increases.

By the end of 1918 and into 1919 it seemed that all the unions, large and small, were active in disputes throughout Britain. By mid-1919 there were strikes or the threat of strikes on the docks and among railway and other transport workers. There was a nationwide bakers' strike and a rent strike by council tenants in Glasgow. The press,[ citation needed ] meanwhile, was reporting that a Bolshevik revolution had arrived in Britain. The government could not afford the possibility of the police aligning with another union or the TUC. The government interpreted labour discontent, including the police, as a sign of disloyalty. It was determined that it would not be caught napping a second time.[ citation needed ]

The Police Act of 1919 was the death knell of NUPPO. It established the Police Federation of England and Wales, a public sector version of a company union, to replace NUPPO. Under the Act, NUPPO was outlawed as a representative body for the police and forbade police from belonging to a trade union. NUPPO had no options but to fight or fold; unsurprisingly, it chose to fight. This time, however, it was the union that misread the mood of the men when it called for another strike. Out of a force of 18,200 men in the Metropolitan Police, only 1,156 participated in the strike in 1919.

In 1919, racial riots against blacks also took place in the ports of Liverpool, Cardiff, Newport, Barry, Glasgow, South Shields, London, Hull and Salford. [2] There were so many racial riots against blacks that summer in major cities of the United States [2] that a black leader termed it Red Summer. There were also riots in Caribbean and South African cities in that first postwar year. [2]


Liverpool City Police, however, supported the 1918 strike. Of the 1,874 members of the Liverpool City Police, 954 went on strike. The Bootle police union claimed that 69 out of 70 officers had joined the strike. [1] :27 The grievances of police in Liverpool were for many years ignored by a local Watch Committee noted for its disciplinarian attitude, which helped foster the propensity for collective action. The poor conditions in the Liverpool Police were well known amongst other forces in England.

On the day the strike started in Liverpool, strikers formed into ranks and marched on police stations around the city in an attempt to persuade those not on strike to join them. Police strikers confronted fellow officers who had not joined the strike, some of whom were union members.

The consequences for the people of Liverpool were far greater than those in the capital. Left without an effective police presence, public order in some areas broke down and resulted in what the Liverpool Daily Post (4 August 1918) called "an orgy of looting and rioting". [1] :27 This continued for three or four days before the military, aided by non-striking police, brought the situation under control, but at the cost of several lives and more than 200 arrests for looting.

The final outcome of the strike was that every man who had gone on strike throughout the country was dismissed from his respective force. Not one striker was reinstated anywhere. All those men lost their pension entitlements. [3]


The eventual outcome of the strikes of 1918 and 1919 benefited police workers. They received a pay increase that doubled their wages, and the government was forced to take notice of their issues, establishing the Police Federation in the process. The two strikes also increased the government's awareness of the importance of the police in terms of the government's own stability. After 1919, the police were never again taken quite as for granted, as they had been in the years before.

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  1. 1 2 3 Taaffe, P. and Mulhearn, T. (1988) Liverpool: A City That Dared to Fight, London: Fortress
  2. 1 2 3 4 Dr. Laura Tabili, "Review of Jacqueline Jenkinson, Black 1919: Riots, Racism and Resistance in Imperial Britain, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2009, ISBN 9781846312007", Reviews in History website, accessed 13 April 2016
  3. Jones, O. "The 'Spirit of Petrograd'? The 1918 Police Strike". What Next? Journal. Retrieved 30 August 2007.

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