National rail strike threatens chaos

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At midnight, as Friday, September 26th, 1919, turned into Saturday 27th, Luton, like the rest of the country prepared for the effects of a national railway strike. Not only rail travellers were anticipating problems, but there were question marks over food distribution, postal deliveries, and coal supply shortages for gas and electricity generation that could result in factory workers being laid off.

And the first indication of impending problems came at 12.35am on Saturday when the 11.30pm train from St Pancras reached Luton and 200 passengers bound for Leeds and Bradford were left stranded at the Midland Station owing to the line at Bedford being blocked.

The train was shunted into a siding, and station refreshment room staff called in to provide hot coffee and food for the passengers. Mr Grice, the stationmaster, was on duty throughout the night, but signalmen, porters and other railway workers were called out by their Union.

Meanwhile, passengers for London collected on the Midland Road platforms at 6.20am in the vain hope of a train, only to be informed there was positively no hope of any trains running. In London, all stations were close, and tube trains were not running.

The Beds & Herts Saturday Telegraph published a special midday edition to provide news of developments. And for the first time, Luton would have a newspaper published daily from Monday to the following Saturday as the strike continued over the coming week.

The Saturday Telegraph reported that Town Clerk William Smith, as Food Control Committee's Executive Officer, emergency arrangements agreed earlier in the year with the Ministry of Food would see food brought into Luton by road instead of rail.

However, Mr Clarke, for the town's butchers, said there would be no meat left in Luton after that day, and strict rationing would begin on Tuesday, when the next supplies of meat were expected.

The food situation had been made worse by the fact that, in the Peace Day riots in July, 2,500 cases of preserved provisions stored in the Town Hall for use in an extreme local emergency were lost in the fire which destroyed the building.


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On September 29, a special one-off four-page edition of a Beds & Herts Monday Telegraph was published, carrying a headline that the general situation was improving. Skeleton train services were running in parts of the country, but not initially on the Midland or Great Northern lines into Luton.

A voluntary offer to Luton Post Office of a motor lorry to carry mail to London was accepted, and a big collection of letters made the previous evening was got away. Hat manufacturers Messrs Hucklesby offered the use of the lorry that was making it usual journey to London for business purposes.

Electricity adEventually, at half-past ten a train for London arrived. With plenty of volunteer assistance a heavy volume of foreign parcel traffic built up over the weekend was completely cleared. The train had set out from Leeds the previous day, producing a cheer for the driver and his mate from passengers who were able to travel. A silver collection was also taken for them among passengers.

Ex-servicemen were among volunteers prepared to help the railways. Some who had served abroad said they were out of sympathy with strikers who had stayed at home and “had the best of things”. One engineer who had spent 11 years at sea volunteered to help man a train as a stoker.

Locally, a horse and cart was being sent from Luton once a day to Dunstable and Leighton Buzzard to enable postal services between the towns to continue. It was also rumoured, but not confirmed, that a large aircraft which came to Luton that morning was playing a part in an air mail service.

In a later edition of the Monday Telegraph, Mr W. H. Cooke, the Borough Electrical Engineer, issued a statement at 3.45pm setting out serious prospects for local industry.

He said: “Owing to the impossibility of obtaining further supplies of coal and the necessity of reserving sufficient stock to supply light during the evenings, all consumers must exercise the strictest economy in the use of electricity for any purpose.

“After tomorrow, Tuesday, is it earnestly requested that power shall only be used between the hours of 1pm and 8pm. The supply of electrical energy for power purposes must cease entirely on Friday evening next, October 3rd, at the latest.”

Failure to comply with the conditions might make it impossible to continue the supply of electrical energy of any description during the present crisis.


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The Beds & Herts Tuesday Telegraph, published as usual on September 30, reported that some National Union of Railwaymen were returning to duty and services were improving. Some minor cases of sabotage had been reported overnight, but fortunately no loss of life occurred.

The Midland Railway Company had begun a small service of two trains each way between St Pancras and Bedford, through Luton. Trains to Bedford would run at 11.44am and 3.44pm, and to St Pancras at 9.34am and 3.34pm. One signalman, aged over 70, was at present working both signal boxes at Luton Station, and several signalmen had returned to duty between Luton and Bedford.

But the Great Northern Station at Bute Street was still idle, and its doors closed to all comers. Stablemen for both railway companies were, however, remaining on duty to ensure that company horses were being properly care for.

The Midland Railway announced plans for two additional trains on the Wednesday, leaving Luton for London at 7.05am and 8.25am, and returning from London at 3pm and 3.30pm.

Commer Cars, with two cars leaving for Birmingham, rang up the Midland Station to offer lifts to stranded rail passengers. One man accepted a lift to Coventry and two others to Northampton.

It was reported to Luton Food Control Committee on Monday night that over 70 per cent of normal meat supplies had already been distributed to butchers, and more was expected. Fish and milk were to be brought to the town by road, about two tons of fish being brought daily direct from Lowestoft, and sugar and margarine deliveries were expected from Cambridge.

No fish had been obtainable from Billingsgate on Saturday, due to wholesale merchants not being allowed to clear it from railway stations without union permits.


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A special four-page Beds & Herts Wednesday Telegraph on October 1st, 1919, reported that while more railwaymen were returning to work, there would be still more drastic restrictions on electricity supply in Luton.

Until Friday, Luton electrical power supply was to be limited to four hours daily, from 1pm to 5pm. This, however, did not offer any hope of a continuance of electrical power later than Friday, the town's Electricity Committee heard on Tuesday night. The local Fuel Overseer was empowered to cut off supplies of gas and electricity where there was seen to be waste.

Luton tramway services were to be restricted to the following hours: Dunstable Road route, 7am till 9.30am; 11.45am till 2.30pm; 4pm to 7pm. Round Green: 8.30am till 10am; 11.45am till 2.30pm; 4pm till 7pm. No trams would run after 7pm.

Rail strike - coalThe Coal Control Committee sent to the Town Clerk an intimation that it may be necessary to suspend all coal transport in order to ensure the maintenance of essential food supplies. No person may now purchase more than on hundredweight per week, and to people who have more than 10 cwt in stock sales are prohibited.

Last night it was reported to the Town Council that in connection with the sugar supply, which has been causing considerable trouble during the last month, the Executive Officer (the Town Clerk)n had discovered that there was some on rail at Luton which could not be sent on to its destination, and that he had taken possession of two tons.

The National Steam Car Co Ltd have been licensed to run omnibuses from Bedford into Luton, with the limitation that they are not to proceed beyond Manchester Square. Three vehicles will be employed on this service.

Additional trains have now been fixed on the Midland Railway, and tomorrow (Thursday) it will be possible to reach Nottingham and intermediate stations. The Thursday timetable included five trains from St Pancras and four to St Pancras. No goods trains were running, not trains were operating to Dunstable, and it was not anticipated any would be forthcoming.

For the morning round the postmen had very little to deliver, there being only local letters. This afternoon, however, there was an exceptionally heavy delivery, the bags arriving just before noon.

Luton's water supply was assured for several weeks, but an appeal was made to consumers to economise on something vital to the community.


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The Luton News on Thursday, October 2nd, reported that a National Union of Railwaymen deputation was at Downing Street and optimism prevailed that negotiations on the dispute would be re-opened. It was, however, reported that the Government was insisting on the railwayman resuming work before negotiations could continue, a condition the union representatives refused to accept. A stop press report said the meeting had ended in deadlock.

In Luton, the Thermo Electric Works had closed down on Tuesday night and the whole of the employees, with the exception of office staff, were out of work.

Last night, Mr T. Keens told the Luton makers' Hat Association that if any manufacturer used power for more than four hours he would be drastically dealt with, and get neither power nor light while the rail strike continued.

An announcement issued this afternoon by Mr W. H. Cooke, Electrical Engineer, said: “As the Electricity Dept has succeeded in securing a small quantity of extra coal, it will not be necessary to stop the supply for power purposes next week as expected. It is still necessary to impress on all consumers the need to exercise the strictest economy in the use of electricity for any purpose.”


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A special Beds & Herts Friday Telegraph on October 3, carried an official communique that there had been a marked improvement in railway traffic, with goods trains, in particular, continuing to increase in number.

While a report said a Bristol to Paddington train had narrowly escaped being derailed and wrecked by an obstruction placed on the line near Swindon, a more extensive service was planned for Midland services between St Pancras and Bedford. Mr H. G. Waggett, the Midland goods agent, said some goods waggons were on their way from London to Luton.

Mr T. H. Few, Great Northern Stationmaster at Luton, also reported an improvement with the first train since Monday arriving from Kings Cross with 150 tons of coal, iron ore and road material, but Electrical Engineer Mr Cooke said the coal was house coal and not intended for the Electricity Works. The railway station was at present closed to passenger traffic, however, although a number of employees, including inspectors and signalmen, had returned to duty.

The Luton railwayman on strike were meeting day by day at the Labour Club, Bute Street, were quite happy about their prospects. They told a newspaper representative that they had no need to do any picketing and were not worried by the few aged railwaymen who were still carrying on. They were having no meetings of a public character, or anything in the nature of a public demonstration.

The Luton and District branch of the N.U.R. Covered the Midland line from Harlington to Harpenden and the Great Northern from Dunstable to Ayot. It had about 150 members.

The Government issued the following statement from 10 Downing Street last evening: “A question has arisen as to the pay of railway workers which would have fallen to be made this week, if they had not gone on strike. The Government takes full responsibility for the decision to withhold payment of this money. The men have broken their contracts. They stopped work without due notice and in complete disregard of the effect of their action on the persons and properties of the ordinary citizens of which they were in charge.”


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On October 4th, with deadlock in negotiations between the Government and railwaymen' leaders, the Beds & Herts Saturday Telegraph gave brief details of a noon communique from 10 Downing Street stating that plans were in active preparation to meet the situation caused by the refusal of the strike leaders to accept arbitration.

Railway services were still growing with goods trains increasing in number. Food stocks in the hands of the retailers were well distributed and, if anything, more plentiful than on the first day of the strike. The response to the call for volunteers showed the public determination.

Mr Waggett informed the Telegraph that the Midland Railway had waggons arriving, and that traders could take delivery of goods by collecting them themselves.

The dependence of a great deal of the industry of Luton on the continuance of electric power was shown by the statements of several of the leading firms, obtained that morning. Many of their hands would be working only a few hours daily. The firms affected included T. Balmforth & Co Ltd, Hayward Tyler & Co Ltd, Davis Gas Stove Co Ltd, Commer Cars, Hewlett & Blondeau, Skefko Ball Bearing Co Ltd, Frickers Metal Co Ltd, George Kent Ltd, British Gelatine Co Ltd and the English & Scottish Wholesale Co-operative Society Ltd Cocoa Works.


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Electricity supply advertWith the settlement of the strike on the Sunday evening, there was no special Monday Telegraph produced, but a message from London was exhibited in a window of the Luton News building in Manchester Street.

The Tuesday Telegraph [October 7th] reported that rail traffic was back to normal, including on the Great Northern service between Luton and Dunstable.

A front page advertisement gave notice of the removal from Wednesday of all restrictions on electricity supply after deliveries of coal had been resumed. However, the notice urged consumers to continue to exercise the strictest economy in the use of electricity for some weeks.

News of the ending of the railway strike arrived in time for a thanksgiving element to be included in church services throughout Luton on the Sunday, giving many members of the congregations their first intimation of the end of the dispute.

The Beds Times wrote that it was a tragic blunder, in its view, that the Government's offer to the Union was not referred to the men before a strike was called. If all the facts had been put before the men there would have been no strike.

"We warmly commend the appeal of Mr Ceceil Harmsworth MP at Luton to everyone to prevent any unnecessary addition to the exasperation and bitterness which the strike has caused. The public spirit has been admirable. The people met the strike with incredulity at first, so utterly inadequate were the apparent facts of the dispute for the coming of such a catastrophe.

"But since the challenge was thrown down the country took it up with an indomitable good hunour and determination which are characteristic of us at our best. We can afford to be fair, and we must all recognise that the strikers are the same men with whom, normally, our relations are perfectly friendly and cordial.

"Mistaken and, in many cases, misled though we believe them to be, everyone should strive to keep the same friendly regard for them."