The 1919 Police Strike in Liverpool
Ninety three years ago, during the aftermath of the first world war, labour unrest and disaffection in Britain were pronounced and widespread. The end of hostilities had immediately brought to the fore all those industrial problems which had been either set aside or dealt with on only a temporary basis during the war.' Nowhere was this more apparent than in the police service. Here mounting discontent culminated in strike action in certain parts of the country both in 1918 and 1919 - the only period in which independent trades unionism has been openly practised in the entire history of the force. The successful strike in London in 1918 and the attempted, national police strike in the following year which failed are notable examples of the taking of 'direct action' within a hierarchically structured and disciplined organization. Up to 10% of the police forces in London and Birmingham came out on strike in August 1919 with more than a thousand policemen out in the Metropolitan area alone, never the less it was Merseyside which proportionate to the size of its force was really the key centre of the strike. More than half the Liverpool and Birkenhead forces as well as three quarters of the police in nearby Bootle answered the strike call. It was also Liverpool and the adjacent boroughs which were the most seriously affected by the consequences of the strike, in terms of public disorder, looting, damage to property and retaliation by the military with fixed bayonets and rifle butts. The significance of Liverpool in the strike was later emphasized by Prime Minister Lloyd George. He claimed that had Liverpool been wrongly handled and had the strikers there scored a success, the whole country might very soon have been on fire. As he saw it, the possible symbolic repercussions of the strike in Liverpool were far-reaching the actual outcome was, perhaps, even the turning-point for the entire labour movement, deflecting it from Bolshevist and direct actionist courses back to legitimate trades unionism once again Sporadic outbreaks of discontent, usually over pay, had occurred in the Liverpool force during the nineteenth century. At this period the police service was a collection of separate forces rather than an integrated system, such that in the city and borough forces pay and conditions were at the discretion of individual watch committees acting as the controlling police authority. After widespread complaints from the lower ranks at the time of the 'new unionism' upsurge of 1889-90, revised pay scales were introduced, constables starting at twenty-five shillings a week, rising to thirty-one shillings after twelve years of service. As a result the police in Liverpool were then better paid than in any other provincial city except Newcastle and Leeds.
An arrest of looters, August 1919
By 1912, during a period of keen competition for labour, the Liverpool watch committee had agreed to increase the weekly pay of constables by one to three shillings according to length of service, as a means of reducing wastage and boosting still further a rising, though inadequate, trend of recruitment." A larger, net increase in the strength of the force was required to meet the needs of policing newly extended city boundaries and to comply with the compulsory Police Forces (Weekly Rest Day) Act passed by parliament two years earlier. Also, it was found necessary to make good the deficiency in numbers caused by the decision taken in 1900 to reduce the strength of the force as an economy measure which would save £8,000 a year on the rates.
Yet difficulties were being experienced in obtaining the required level of recruitment and retention. A particular cause of the manpower problem related to conditions of the police pension scheme, the terms of which were more onerous in Liverpool than in other forces. In 1903, as a further economy to reduce expenditure on pensions in the second largest force in the country, the watch committee had increased the required length of service for securing maximum pension of two-thirds pay, from the usual twenty-six years to thirty years for all who joined the force after that date. This measure was said to have 'frightened off' many potential recruits who preferred to join another force in which maximum pension could be earned with four years less service. Concurrently with the 1912 pay increase to constables for recruiting purposes it had also been intended to grant the sergeants a rise of one shilling a week, but that proposed increase was doubled after a deputation of sergeants had approached the head constable and their grievances concerning inadequate differentials had received extensive publicity in a local newspaper.
Because of the active recruitment policy being pursued, the force included an unusually high proportion of new men - 700 from a total of 1,800 constables having been appointed in the previous three years who were all at the lower end of the pay scale. After being refused any further pay adjustment the constables then sought permission to form a trade union, a request which the head constable strongly opposed and the watch committee rejected outright.
Read More ……