This month’s blog is based on a meeting of Burnage Local History Group held in 2019. It uses as its starting point a postcard in an exhibition at the People’s History Museum on The Most Radical Street in Manchester, curated by Dr Katrina Navickas. But it was also inspired by the school climate strikes, begun by Greta Thunberg, which spread to Manchester and other British cities in the summer of 2019. I was fascinated to find out that these were not the first school strikes to have occurred.
The postcard, dated to the early C20, shows a crowd of about 100 people and records a unique and enigmatic event in our local history. In the foreground a group of boys and girls, dressed in their Sunday best, pose for the camera. Behind them, a larger crowd have their backs to the photographer and focus their attention on a speakers’ platform. A handwritten caption tells us that the gathering is at All Saints, Weaste (in Salford), and that the photograph shows the choir strike protest meeting. It has not been possible to find anything more about the choir strike, although judging by the photo it must have generated a lot of local interest and support at the time. But it is likely to have been linked to the school strikes that took place in various parts of the country in 1911.
The previous two years had seen the Chancellor Lloyd George’s attempts to introduce a national insurance scheme for funding pensions temporarily blocked by the House of Lords, and wage cuts coupled with high living costs were creating devastating social problems. The general feeling amongst the poorer citizens of the country was that those with landed wealth had little sympathy for their concerns. The scene was set for widespread unrest throughout the country. Beginning with a dockers’ walkout in Southampton, railway workers, warehousemen, colliers and many others joined them on strike during the summer of 1911. On August 13th two protesters were shot dead after a rally of over 100,000 brought Liverpool to a standstill, while Salford was described as being under virtual military occupation at the time. The atmosphere was very unsettled and, with revolutionary activity occurring in other parts of Europe in the early C20, there was fear of revolution in Britain.
By September 1911 strikes were breaking out in schools, and given Manchester’s radical heritage it is hardly surprising that the city and surrounding towns were centres of pupil unrest. In Miles Platting boys labelled their school caps with “picket” and marched to the Municipal school on Holland Street “the object being to induce the scholars there to declare a sympathetic strike. These endeavours, however, were futile, and the presence of the teachers at the gates prevented the pickets from entering the school grounds to carry out their programme of ‘peaceful’ persuasion.” By the time the strikers had reached Corpus Christi school, on Varley Street, they had apparently “assumed quite a militant attitude” and were armed with sticks, and “an even more terrifying display was made by others who were the possessors of toy pistols”. (Northern Daily Telegraph, 9th September)
On the 11th, “the strike was brought to the doors of Ashton… two or three hundred lads ‘came out’, most of the elementary schools in the borough being affected”. There was considerable concern in the town and “so serious did the situation become that policemen were stationed in the vicinity of some of the schools, and officers in plain clothes were on special duty”. (The Evening Reporter, 13th September) The Ashton boys clearly knew how to organise strikes, probably from observing the adults, and some “had pinned to their coats pieces of cardboard on which the word ‘Picket’ was written”, and they “went to various schools and induced the lads to come out”. (Birmingham Daily Mail, 13th September)
The strike came closer to home as “a contingent of youthful rebels from Ancoats and other parts of Manchester invaded Reddish”, approaching the area via Gorton. These may have been the same boys who “congregated in the vicinity of Oldham Road railway station, where a lively tattoo was kept up on the hoardings and the tin advertisement plates”. When they got to Reddish they visited all the schools. “Though failing in their object at the North Reddish Council School, they were successful at the Houldsworth School and St Joseph’s Roman Catholic School, where most of the boys accepted the invitation and left the playground.” (Northern Daily Telegraph, 13th September)
In total there were school strikes in 62 towns in Britain. The Birmingham Daily Mail of 14th September blamed the trouble makers of the “Truant Class” for the strikes, but it is clear that the young strikers were well organised with committees, banners, marches and meetings. It is also possible that the “Truant Class” contained the schools’ rebels – they may have been labelled as delinquents, but they were also perhaps more keenly aware of the injustices and were more likely to make a stand against them.
What are we to make of this wave of student unrest? While in other parts of the country striking pupils called for longer holidays, shorter school hours, free stationery, and an end to the strap, in Manchester, Ashton and Stockport their demands are not stated, but they must have had similar aims. They were also probably inspired by their striking parents, and the presence of the army on the streets appears not to have deterred them – in fact it may have made them more defiant.
The reports in the papers probably exaggerated the menace of the school strikers for dramatic effect – describing their “menacing display”, “terrifying attitude”, the “toy pistols” and how they “invaded Reddish”. At the same time they also trivialised the pupils – the “lively tattoo” at Oldham Road railway station sounds more like a carnival than a threatening protest. Looking at reports of other protests at the time this seems to have been a common way of undermining activism.
The aftermath of the school strikes was brutal. The children inevitably returned to the classrooms, and ringleaders were punished. Some were beaten in front of the rest of the school while others were sent to the workhouse, and it is not known whether they achieved any of their aims.
As to the Weaste choir strike, we can only speculate about their demands, but the choirboys were probably demanding payment for their singing. The Church of England was, and indeed still is, a very wealthy institution, and during this period there was strong resistance to the payment of tithes (essentially a tax) to the Church. It might have seemed unjust to the choir that they were not being paid for their labour. Like the school strikers, the Weaste choir show young people taking an active role in asserting their rights, inspired by the actions of the adults.