1890. Britannia really did rule the waves, and much of the commerce of the globe. The Empire was at its height, with manufacturing and innovation never stronger at home, and the North as its industrial engine; those dark, Satanic mills consolidated fortunes for some. It’s Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and more, that great wealth provided so many of the great civic buildings.
But no empire ever became great without exploitation. No just in the colonies, but also at home. The lust for profit and cutting costs was every bit as strong as it is today. In Leeds, the council had purchased the private gas companies, taking complete control of the utility. It was run by the Gas Committee, which conceived a novel way to reduce costs, as the price of gas had fallen: in essence, they’d lay off the workers for the summer, when demand was lower, and hire them back at lower wages. Interestingly, several councillors had interests in collieries that supplied (often inferior) coal to make gas.
The workers were organised by the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers of Great Britain, set up a year before by Will Thorne and helped by Tom Maguire, who’d workers with unions in Leeds before and would become one of the seminal figures in the formation on the Independent Labour Party.
The council’s Gas Committee decided to bring in ‘replacement workers’ (or blacklegs and scabs, if you were a union man) from Manchester and London. However, those responding to ads in the newspapers believed they were going to be in new facilities. To add insult to injury, before the strike began, the regular workers were ordered to clean out areas of the gasworks to provide living space for their replacements. They walked out. On Friday, June 27, men reporting for the night shift were turned away. The conflict had begun.
In the end, it was all over in a few days. The first group of blacklegs was brought to the wrong railway station and forced to march through thousands of protesters to be put up overnight in the Town Hall. Their march to the gasworks the next day was plagued with violence by strikers and others, so bad that the cavalry was called out. Remarkably, no one was killed.
However, once the blacklegs knew the truth, many of them abandoned their jobs. With hardly anyone to run the works, the supply of gas in Leeds was growing desperately low. The strikers showed no sign of giving in; in fact, the mayor read the Riot Act. More replacement workers were leaving their new jobs all the time.
By Wednesday, July 2, arbitration was underway. The Gas Committee knew they’d lost, but they needed to salvage what face they could from the affair. Friday morning, it was all settled. A few minor concessions from the union, and agreement on payment and tickets home for the scabs, who’d been lured under false pretences.
A strike, and the union had won. It was, perhaps, a sign of things to come, heralding the start of the Suffragists’ Union and many more unions fighting for the working man who sat at the bottom of Empire’s ladder, and the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893. And, of course, there are echoes of the rapaciousness and greed of today’s economy, where workers are a disposable commodity; this is simply the Victorian version.
It also makes a wonderful backdrop to a story. It’s an event that deserves to be more widely-known, and (self-promotion time) I’ve tried to do that in the crime novel Gods of Gold. In some small ways the times really were a-changin’.
Chris Nickson is a novelist and music journalist who was born and raised in Leeds, and moved back there after several decades away. His books include the Richard Nottingham series, set in Leeds in the 1730s, Emerald City and West Seattle Blues, both of which take place in the Seattle music scene of the 1980s/90s, and The Crooked Spire, a novel of Chesterfield in 1361. His newest book is Gods of Gold, the first in the Tom Harper series, and set against the backdrop of the Leeds Gas Strike of 1890.