2022 marks the 180th anniversary of the world’s first general strike. The following article describes this strike. We focus on the 16th August to commemorate the strike because this is the day on which the strike reached its climax and the military murdered at least six workers in Halifax. On the 13th August four workers had already been shot dead in Preston. The strike itself began in Staffordshire amongst the coal miners and spread to include most areas of the UK across a period of ten days.
Throughout the nineteenth century, during rapid industrialisation, the workers of Britain were faced increasingly with greater and greater exploitation by their employers with the full backing of the British state. There were acts of resistance to this exploitation from workers, most famously events around The Peterloo Massacre of 1819 and The Tolpuddle Martyrs of 1834. These and other events were symptomatic of a working and peasant class trying to resist attacks on their working lives and conditions. The Chartist Movement, which was a movement for the universal suffrage of men and the first organised movement of the working class, emerged out of this context in 1838.
The pay and working conditions of industrial workers declined steeply during the first half of the nineteenth century. Employers had cut the pay of home weavers throughout that period alongside the introduction of power looms located in mills. The number of mills and power looms rapidly increased as technology advanced. Alongside the increasing efficiency of the looms came the de-skilling of workers and the replacement of weaving in people’s homes with factory working. Women and children began to play an increasing role in the work-force and the dominant role of adult male workers was reduced.
The events of 1842 have to a large extent been air-brushed out of British history. Peterloo and Tolpuddle are widely commemorated by the labour and trades union movement but events around 1842 are given far less prominence. It is the role of this article to attempt to commemorate what was a highly significant historical event. The Peterloo massacre resulted in the murder of eleven demonstrators and the wounding of many more. Henry Hunt who spoke at the event was imprisoned for two years and public gatherings of more than 50 people were banned. Tolpuddle was an attempt by agricultural workers to form a union, for which the organisers were sentenced to deportation to the colonies.
In 1842 many small, mostly localised, trades unions were being formed across the mill towns of Britain. None of these trade unions were to persist into the modern period but they were an important development in the struggle of organised labour. In 1839 there had been major protests in Newport, South Wales led by Chartists. The military murdered and wounded a significant but unknown number of protesters. In 1842 the Chartists delivered The People’s Charter asking for universal male suffrage as well as other demands signed by 3,000,000 people. In the same year strikes were organised by miners in Staffordshire and these strikes quickly spread across England and Wales. Eventually these strikes spread across 32 counties.
Mick Jenkins in his book, The Great Strike of 1842, estimated that over 500,000 workers were on strike over a period of about ten days. However, the events in Halifax, West Yorkshire, were of particular significance. The localised unions had been planning a strike over a considerable period of time and were determined to hold the strikes across England and Wales simultaneously. The local unions communicated their intentions over great distances with the aid of carrier pigeons. A strike and demonstration was planned in Halifax for the 13th August 1842. Strikes were already taking place in Rochdale and Bradford as well as other towns and the plan was to march from those towns to Halifax -at that time one of the most important manufacturing centres in Britain- in order to support the strike and to demonstrate demands for increased pay and better working conditions. There were also calls for universal male suffrage and some radical, even revolutionary demands, from a small number of the strikers. The valleys between Rochdale and Bradford and Halifax were lined with textile mills. The plan was to visit the mills along the way to Halifax and close them down. It was also to encourage the workers in those mills to join the strike. This was hugely successful, so that by the time the strikers reached Halifax a demonstration of over 20,000 people was to take place. At that time the population of Halifax and the surrounding area equalled approximately 20,000. This was the first effective deployment of flying pickets. The workers involved are best described as male and female workers because many of those marching were children employed in the mills. Women were at the forefront and were as numerous at the demonstrations as men.
The strikers met initially at Skircoat Moor, which overlooks Halifax. This was a mass gathering of males and females. Speeches were made in order to increase the cohesiveness and political understanding of the strikers. There was an attempt to break up this gathering by the military but this was repulsed by the workers, with only relatively minor injuries to both sides.
The strikers then marched into Halifax itself. This was seen by the authorities, as an attempt to take over the town. At this point the military attacked the demonstrators with muskets and sabres. At least six strikers were murdered, but the actual number of fatalities was probably higher. One female demonstrator exclaimed, “We came for bread not bayonets.”
Ultimately the strike of 1842 was unsuccessful in winning better pay and conditions and the Chartist movement itself was dissolved in 1857. However, the government of Robert Peel saw the power that organised labour represented and put in place a series of measures to try and ensure that the state could respond more effectively to such events. This included the formation of a secret police force to monitor activists in the worker’s movement. The British state also began to plan to control such events in the future through better communication using the newly invented telegraph as well as through changes to the law.
The strikes of 1842 can teach workers important lessons. This includes the importance of clear communication between workers throughout struggle and unity in action. The use of carrier pigeons was an imaginative way of keeping in touch across distance. The use of flying pickets was another tactic that proved effective. When workers visited a factory en masse, the mill owners could not resist them and the local authorities were slow to respond to the striker’s methods. Mass meetings, where the ideas behind the action were discussed and developed, were also significant.
The strikes of 1842 can be described as the first mass strikes in history. The scale and wide-spread nature of these strikes makes the term, the first general strike, appropriate. This general strike however was not organised by a trade union bureaucracy, but by ordinary workers – women, men and children from their work places; extraordinary workers getting together to address the growing inequality and oppression of the time. This should strike a chord with us at the present time. Working conditions and pay are being attacked by employers and the state at the current time. Living standards are falling and poverty is increasing. The RMT and ASLEF are at the forefront of a growing wave of strikes. The state is prepared through its judiciary, police and trades union law to resist the will of the strikers. It is imperative that lessons are learned from past struggles, including defeats. Unity is imperative. Let’s demand that union leaders are acting together and that striking unions are not marginalised as the miners were. Today’s carrier pigeon is the internet. Let’s trust it’s being used to communicate solidarity across unions in struggle to help build and broaden the struggle. To spread the idea that if workers strike together, they can beat back the capitalist class and win.