The Rent Strike to Bloody Friday

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Glasgow's Bloody Friday 1919

Like all the events in political struggle it is difficult to trace the thread back to what brought it to this stage, Bloody Friday 1919 is no different. This was not just an attack on a large demonstration in Glasgow, it was the culmination of a series of radical events in Glasgow and the Clydeside area where the state showed its brutality. Perhaps we could even take it back to the 18th century and the radicals like Thomas Muir and others. However we can certainly take it back to the rent strikes of the first world war, the forming of the Labour Withholding Committee, (LWC) The Clyde Workers Committee (CWC) and the political climate of that period.

The Rent Strike

In pre First World War Glasgow there were a large number of empty houses, by the year 1915 all were occupied by incoming workers to the munitions and allied war industry trades. A shortage of workers and materials saw a lack of maintenance and the housing stock deteriorate rapidly. At the beginning of the war the landlords tried to implement large rent increases, at the receiving end of this were 7,000 pensioners and families whose men were fighting in France. This brought about the formation of the "Glasgow Women's Housing Association" and many other local "Women's Housing Associations" to resist the increases. A variety of peaceful activities were used to prevent evictions and drive out the Sheriff's officers. There were constant meetings in an attempt to be one step ahead of the Sheriff's officers. All manner of communication was used to summon help, everything from drums, bells, trumpets and anything that could be used to create a warning sound to rally supporters, who were mainly women as the men were at work in the yards and factories at these times. They would then indulge in cramming into closes and stairs to prevent the entry of the Sheriff's officers and so prevent them from carrying out their evictions. They also used little paper bags of flour, peasmeal and whiting as missiles directed at the bowler hatted officers. These activities culminated on the 17th of November 1915 with the massive demonstration and march of thousands through the city streets and on to the Glasgow Sheriff's Court. The size of the demonstration caused the Sheriff at the court to phone the Prime Minister of the day, this resulted in the immediate implementation of the "1915 Rent Restriction Act" which benefited tenants across the country.

The Labour Withholding Committee

This happened in a time of war, so it was obvious that by 1915 Glasgow and Clydeside had a very large class oriented militant grassroots movement and had forced the Government on this occasion to act in their favour. The rent strike was mainly a women’s organisation but the men were proving to be just as militant in the workplaces. Around the same time in 1915 during a prolonged period of considerable economic hardship for most industrial workers, Clydeside engineering employers refused workers demands for a wage increase. The insatiable demand for war munitions had lead to a rapid rise in inflation and a savage attack on the living standards of the working class. Workers were demanding wage increases to offset these repressive conditions. At this time Weir’s of Cathcart was paying workers brought over from their American plant, 6/- shillings a week more than workers in their Glasgow plant.

The dispute between workers and management at Weir’s rapidly escalated into strike action. The strike was organised by a strike committee named the Labour Withholding Committee (LWC). This committee comprised of rank and file trade union members and shop stewards. It was they who remained in control of the strike rather than the officials from the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE).

The strike started in February 1915 and lasted almost 3 weeks. At its peak 10,000 members of the ASE from 8 separate engineering works were on strike throughout Clydeside. The officials from the ASE denounced the strike and backed the government’s demands to resume work. It was this double pressure from the government and their own trade union that drove the workers from the various engineering works in Glasgow to form the LWC to give the workers a voice and to organise the strike to their wishes.

Although the strikers demands were not met, its importance is in the fact of it forming the LWC. A committee formed from rank and file union members that determined policy in the work place and refused to follow the directives from union officials when those directives conflicted with the demands of that rank and file.

The Munitions Act

The government alarmed by the February 1915 strike, summoned trade union leaders to a special conference. The result of this conference being the now notorious Treasury Agreement. The outcome of which was that all independent union rights and conditions including the right to strike, were abandoned for the duration of the war. It also allowed the employers to “dilute” labour. Meaning they could employ unskilled labour in skilled jobs to compensate for the growing labour shortage, due to the every increasing demand for munitions and the endless slaughter of young men at the front. The Munitions Act also made strikes illegal and restrictions of output a criminal offence. The Munitions Act also allowed for the setting up of Munitions Tribunals to deal with any transgressions of the act.

October 1915 saw one such tribunal, the outcome of which was that 3 shipwrights from Fairfield Shipyard on the Clyde were sentenced to one months imprisonment for their refusal to pay a fine imposed because of their strike action in support of two sacked workers. The imprisonment of the 3 shipwrights prompted the official union representatives to call for a public enquiry. However, the LWC, which had reformed after the February 1915 strike, were seeking immediate strike action. A rather shaky and uneasy peace remained while official union leaders and the rank and file LWC waited for the government’s response. With the lack of any response from the government, the LWC decided, with the full backing of the workers, to act on their own by issuing an ultimatum to the government; If the shipwrights were not released within 3 days there would be widespread industrial action throughout Clydeside until their release.

Three days after the LWC ultimatum the shipwrights were released. It was later discovered the imprisoned men’s fines had been paid. The general feeling among the LWC and others was that the fines had been paid by ASE officials in an attempt to prevent widespread industrial action on Clydeside over which they could exercise little or no control.

The Clyde Workers Committee

This victory lead to the LWC deciding to form a permanent committee to resist the Munitions Act. It was to be called the Clyde Workers Committee, (CWC) and organised on the same democratic principles as the LWC. It would have 250-300 delegates elected directly from the work place, it would meet weekly. This was a seismic sift in the employee/management working relationship on Clydeside. Up until then shop stewards in the industry merely existed as card inspectors and implementers of national and district committees policies. However, after the forming of the CWC in 1915, increasingly it was the workers through the CWC that controlled the policy on the shop floor and in negotiations, much to the consternation of the official trade unions. The CWC in 1915 stated; “We will support the officials just as long as they represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.” Simple, the CWC had no faith in the official trade union to protect the workers interests.

Arrest and Deportation

Between January and March 1916 the Dilution Commission met little or no opposition from workers and trade unions elsewhere on Clydeside. During this period however, little or no progress was made in the Clydeside engineering industry. A situation that the government felt that it could not tolerate much longer.

A management decision at Beardmore’s engineering works Parkhead Glasgow, to refuse shop stewards access to new “dilutees” brought about strike action in March 1916. In the following four days workers at three other munitions factories came out in sympathy with the Beardmore strikers. These events on Clydeside were creating a degree of nervousness in the government and the Dilution committee who were afraid that the actions of the syndicalist inspired CWC would impede munitions production and possibly spread to other areas.

On order of the government on March 24 1916, the military authorities arrested and deported Kirkwood, Haggerty, Shields, Wainright and Faulds, the Beardmore shop stewards. On the same day they arrested and deported McManus and Messer two shop stewards from Weir’s of Cathcart, one of the factories that came out on strike in Sympathy with the Beardmore strikers. On March 29 the military authorities again swooped and arrested and deported Glass, Bridges and Kennedy, 3 more shop stewards from Weir’s. The shop stewards were sent to Edinburgh where they had to report to the police three times daily. These restrictions were kept in place until 14 June 1917. These deportations broke the resistance to the implementation of “dilution” in the Clydeside engineering industry, it also realised the government’s aim in bring about the demise of the CWC for the duration of the war.

The Forty-Hour Week

Following the end of the war there was a fear of mass unemployment due to the demobilisation of the troops and the demise of the munitions factories. The common view held by the majority of workers in shipbuilding, engineering and mining was that a drastic cut in the number of hours in the working week, with the same war time pay levels was the only solution. On January 1919 the CWC held a meeting of its shop stewards from shipbuilding and engineering, from this meeting the “Forty Hour” movement was born, and the decision was taken to go with the miners in their demand for a reduction to the weekly hours to help absorb the increase to the workforce and the reducing number of jobs. In terms of both its tactics and its demands the January 1919, 40 Hours Strike led by the CWC was the most radical strike seen to that date on Clydeside The objectives of the strike were to secure a reduction of weekly working hours to 40 in order that discharged soldiers could be found employment, and to stop the re-emergence of a pool of unemployment, thereby maintaining the strength of the workers against capital. The leaders of the CWC had dismissed a nationally negotiated 47-hour week agreement that had been agreed between employers and the official trade unions. The CWC had widespread support amongst workers and other important trade union bodies within the Clydeside area for their demands for a 40-hour working week.

At the start of the strike Clydeside employers were unconcerned, the feeling being that the strike was the result of a dispute between official and unofficial trade union leaders and would have little impact on them. Both the government and trade union officials were also initially unconcerned, feeling that without official support the strike would quickly fade. These views changed drastically just four days into the strike. By 30 January 1919 40,000 workers in the engineering and shipbuilding industries in Clydeside were out on strike. Electricity supply workers in Glasgow had come out in sympathy, plus the strike was joined by 36,000 miners in the Lanarkshire and Stirlingshire coalfields. It was stated that during the first week of the strike not a single trade in the Clydeside area was left unaffected by strike action. The rapid spread of the strike was attributed to the large-scale deployment of flying pickets by the CWC, largely made up of discharged servicemen.

The Demonstration, Bloody Friday

On Friday 31 January 1919 upwards of 60,000 demonstrators gathered in George Square Glasgow in support of the 40-hours strike and to hear the Lord Provost's reply to the workers' request for a 40-hour week. Whilst the deputation was in the building the police mounted a vicious and unprovoked attack on the demonstrators, felling unarmed men and women with their batons. The demonstrators, including large numbers of ex-servicemen, retaliated with whatever was available, fists, iron railings and broken bottles, and forced the police to retreat. On hearing the noise from the square the strike leaders, who were meeting with the Lord Provost, rushed outside in an attempt to restore order. One of the leaders, David Kirkwood, was felled to the ground by a police baton, and along with William Gallacher was arrested.

Riots and Arrests

After the initial confrontation between the demonstrators and the police in George Square, further fighting continued in and around the city centre streets for many hours afterwards. The Townhead area of the city and Glasgow Green, where many of the demonstrators had regrouped after the initial police charge, were the scenes of running battles between police and demonstrators. In the immediate aftermath of 'Bloody Friday', as it became known, other leaders of the Clyde Workers' Committee were arrested, including Emanuel Shinwell, Harry Hopkins and George Edbury.


The strike and the events of January 31 1919 “Bloody Friday” raised the Government’s concerns about industrial militancy and revolutionary political activity in Glasgow. Considerable fears within government of a workers' revolution in Glasgow led to the deployment of troops and tanks in the city. A full battalion of Scottish soldiers stationed at Maryhill barracks in Glasgow at the time were locked down and confined to barracks and an estimated 10,000 English troops and tanks were sent to Glasgow in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Friday. Soldiers with fixed bayonets marched with tanks through the streets of the City. There were soldiers patrolling the streets and machine guns on the roofs in George Square. No Scottish troops were deployed, with the government fearing fellow Scots, soldiers or otherwise, would go over to the workers if a revolutionary situation developed in the area. It was the British state’s largest military mobilisation against its own people and showed they were quite prepared to shed workers’ blood in protecting the establishment.

Partial Victory

On 10 February 1919 the 40-hours strike was called off by the Joint Strike Committee. Whilst not achieving their stated aim of a 40-hour working week, the striking workers from the engineering and shipbuilding industries did return to work having at least negotiated an agreement that guaranteed them a 47-hour working week; 10 hours less than prior to the strike.

Posted by John Couzin

The book Radical Glasgow

Radical Glasgow website