In 1923 the canal boat workers went on strike over wages and conditions. Led by the TGWU they were victorious after standing firm for 14 weeks. PETER FROST has the story
Tomorrow on the wharf in the Northamptonshire village of Braunston Unite national officer Julia Long will unveil a plaque commemorating the canal boat strike that bought canal traffic to a stop here 92 years ago.
Also at the unveiling were Mick Orpin Regional Organiser Unite, Actors Prunella Scales and Timothy West and Unite’s Julia Long.
The unveiling is part of a large gathering of historic canal boats — including at least one that actually took part in the strike. There will be scores of colourful historic narrow boats.
In the summer of 1923 the entire traffic on the canal, one of Britain’s most important and vital transport arteries, came to a total halt when Braunston’s community of boat families went out on strike.
The Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), had only been formed the previous year. The Braunston canal boat strike was to be a key struggle bringing union organisation to an industry with no trade unions.
The TGWU went on to become the biggest union in the world and today it is part of the giant union Unite. Julia Long, who is responsible for waterways and docks at Unite will be guest of honour at the gathering. After the unveiling at 10am, Long will take a short cruise on the working boat Laurel, which actually took part in the strike 92 years ago.
Also at the unveiling will be Braunston’s Labour councillor and parliamentary candidate at the last election Abigail Campbell (below with Julia Long) who told the Morning Star: “At a time when many ordinary working people are marching against Tory austerity, struggling to cope on zero-hours contracts or are forced to rely on benefits to top up their pitifully low wages, it is great to see those who fought for workers’ rights long ago being remembered.”
The 1923 strike against wage cuts and for the right to join a union was to last for 14 weeks. At Braunston between 50 and 60 boats were tied up together, blocking the wharf and both the Oxford and Grand Junction canals.
After six or so hungry weeks the striking boatmen were sent a letter containing formal notice demanding they quit their boats. In many cases the tiny boat cabins were their only homes.
The TGWU instructed the boatmen to ignore the threatening letters and to stand firm. The employers threatened the sackings because they were desperate to unload the strike-bound cargoes — a thousand tons of sugar and tea — to deliver them by road.
Scabs attempted to unload the boats and police were drafted in to supervise the strike-breaking. Under strong police protection the boats were finally unloaded. The foreman of the wharf ended up in the canal, tossed in by an angry boat captain.
One positive outcome of the strike was that the TGWU organiser Sam Brooks (pictured with his charges), realised how many of the boaters could not read or write. He organised literacy lessons for canal boatmen, women and children and these continued throughout the strike. Eventually many of the children began attending the village school, more than doubling its size.
In September TGWU leader and newly elected Labour MP Harry Gosling travelled to Braunston to support the strikers. Gosling would be minister of transport in the first Labour government later in 1923.
While in Braunston, Gosling emphasised the need for the organisation of canal workers in order to improve working and living conditions. Specifically, he focused on the importance of regular schooling for boat children, who he spoke directly to at Braunston.
“When I got among the children and they heard who I was, they began to enquire if the strike was over. I told them I was very sorry, but it was not over yet.
“They did not appear to mind in the least, though I thought it would be bad news for them. In fact they seemed relieved, so I asked why they wanted to know. They told me enthusiastically that because of the strike they had been able to go to school.”
At last, after 14 hard weeks, the strike was settled in some complicated legal actions in the courts.
It was an important victory, it bought trade unions to the canals and led to many fundamental improvements in the working and living conditions of boating families.
That’s what we are celebrating at Braunston tommorow.
A second plaque will be unveiled at Braunston tomorrow commemorating the life of Sonia Rolt who died last year aged 95.
A lifelong socialist, she made a massive contribution to the preservation of Britain’s industrial and cultural heritage.
She didn’t just campaign for the preservation of canals, but also fought and agitated for better wages and conditions for those families who worked the boats.
Narrowboats were her first love but she also involved herself in the preservation of steam railways, historic ships and old buildings.
During WWII she was interviewed by the Special Branch about communist influence in the Hoover factory where she was among female workers building bombers.
When the ministry of transport advertised for women to work boats on the Grand Union canal, and Sonia volunteered.
She and her two flatmates were sent for brief training. It was the first canal any of them had ever seen.
They became Idle Women, the rather unkind joke on the IW badges they wore — IW stood for Inland Waterways — but they adopted the Idle Women title with pride.
They certainly weren’t idle. The trio worked long hours and lived on a pair of cramped and unhygienic narrowboats carrying 50 tons of metal from London to Birmingham and returning with coal.
The work was hard, but Sonia fell in love with the canals, the boating families, the locks, bridges and buildings of the waterways — they would become her life.
She married a handsome young boatman George Smith in 1945 and together they worked a pair of boats.
The couple encouraged canal workers to join the union and fought for better conditions on the boats. They also campaigned for Labour in the July 1945 election that resulted in an landslide victory for Clement Attlee — the begining of the NHS and many social benefits we are still fighting to defend today.
Later she met Tom Rolt, whose 1944 book Narrow Boat would be the foundation stone of the canal preservation movement.
- Peter Frost has written a history of the 1923 canal boat strike at Braunston. The 16-page illustrated booklet costs £5 including postage and packing and all profits will go to fund the permanent memorial to the strikers. Order your copy with cash or cheque (made payable to Wendy Wilson) from Wendy Wilson, 5 The Green, Braunston, NN11 7HW. More information on 07530 932-881.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 26 June 2015.