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The Great Unrest: Modelling the 1911 railway strike



Here’s an attempt to reenact the 1911 railway strike in OO. The strike was an important but sometimes overlooked event in the social history of Britain's railways, and involved some very unusual scenes. The cameos are based on contemporary photos, but transposed to my own Farthing layouts.



1. The strike begins




“The Great Unrest” was a period of labour unrest during the years 1911-1914. 





The period saw more industrial disputes than any before it.




During the years 1911-14 there were 4229 officially recorded strikes in Britain.





This included Britain's first official national railway strike which took place over three dramatic days from August 17-19, 1911. 





The strike arose from dissatisfaction among railway workers with the lack of progress in the so-called Conciliation Boards that were supposed to negotiate worker’s conditions. 





In June 1911 railway workers in Liverpool joined dock workers and merchant sailors in the Liverpool Transport Strike, demanding shorter hours and better pay.




 Source: Ronramstew on Flickr.


The strikes in Liverpool gradually gained broader support and spread to other towns. With some delay the railway unions decided to back the strikes and expand them. A formal national railway strike was declared on August 17.





The unions sent telegrams to 2,000 railway centers across the country, urging all railway workers to abandon work and go on strike.





According to sources this increased the number of workers on strike to approximately 150-200,000 of the 600,000 railway workers recorded at the time.





Action was most intense on the railways that connected with the North, including the MR, LNWR, NER, GCR and GWR. On the southern railways, few workers got involved in the strike.



2. Bearskins on the line




The railway companies refused to accept the strike and met with the PM Asquith, who guaranteed that they would be able to continue railway operations.





After a failed attempt to negotiate an arrangement with the unions, Home Secretary Churchill approved deployment of 58,000 troops around the country.





The army’s brief was to secure running of the railways and avoid interference or sabotage by the strikers.





Numerous photos from around the country show troops guarding stations, signal boxes, junctions and loco sheds.





This scene was inspired by a photo in the 1911 edition of "The Sphere", showing troops guarding GWR facilities.





 Many of the deployed troops wore an unusual combination of field uniform and full-dress headgear.




Perhaps an early spin doctor had been at work?





Similar scenes were captured at e.g. LeicesterYork and Clapham Junction.




3. Crossing the picket lines



Source: Sarah on Flickr


The army was also employed to assist the police escort horse-drawn deliveries.





Photos show horse-drawn wagons lined up in small convoys.





The stable-men were all on strike, so no reins 😊. No, reins are just not practical on my layouts which are constantly set up and dismantled.





With the protection from troops, some goods got through to their destination.





Other cartage vehicles were stopped by striking workers. 





Pictures show confrontations in the streets… 





… as workers sought to halt deliveries and confront strike breakers.





In some cases, horse-drawn wagons were overturned to stop their progress.





The disturbances fuelled some sensationalist reporting in the media, but the strike also led to more fundamental debates about the salaries and rights of railway workers.



4. Impact on passenger operations 




Passenger operations were differently affected across the country. 





In areas with little strike activity, services were maintained to some extent.





Nevertheless, knock-on effects led to delays and cancellations in many parts of the system.




In some areas most of the staff were on strike and trains came to a complete standstill. This scene was inspired by a photo from Manchester which shows passengers walking along the tracks, having left a deserted train and making their way into the station.




The largely unstaffed stations must have been a strange experience.




Without staff, what is a railway?



5. A Siphon Special



With so many men on strike, it became a challenge to secure sufficient stock for passenger services.




Special measures were therefore required. This is an old K’s Siphon that I got off ebay. The doors were cut away…





…and new ones made from laminated styrene.




New doors in place…





… and a few details added.



This short video clip shows the roof fitted with magnets, thanks to Dave John for that idea.




A Siphon Special.





Perhaps you think I'm pulling your leg.




Surely the glorious GWR wouldn't transport passengers...





... like this?





But once again...





Source: Embedded from Getty Images.


...reality beats fiction.



6. Tragedy at Llanelli


Despite the lighter moments this was serious business, and at Llanelli it went all wrong.




In a confrontation between the army and strikers on August 19, two civilians were shot and another four lost their lives in the explosion of a gunpowder van. There's an account of the sad events here.




Source: Embedded from Getty Images.


I didn’t feel like modelling the tragedy itself, so decided to portray a scene from the following day when locals came out to inspect the damaged stock, as seen above.




Several GWR clerestory coaches were damaged in the clashes between army and strikers. Photos show them in 1908-1912 all-brown, so I painted my Slater’s C10 in a simplified version of that livery.





Some distressed glazing was then added.





Pictures show police, staff and curious locals inspecting the coaches.





I wonder what they were thinking?





There’s certainly a sombre mood in some of the photos…




…the shattered glazing a reminder…




…that beneath the elegance of the Edwardian era…





…lay great tensions...





... and deep divisions.



By then the strike was over. On August 19 the government mediated a deal between the railway companies and the unions.   The agreement addessed few of the workers' immediate concerns, and some workers felt betrayed by it. The deal did however strengthen the role of the railway unions as legitimate players in negotiating worker's conditions. The unions considered it a win and called off the strike. The years that followed saw more railway strikes, some of them more succesful. But the 1911 strike was the first, and it showed that something was changing.




PS: Please note that this is just a rough account of the strike, and I am not a historian. For further online reading see e.g. David Turner's write-up about the strike, the Brighton ASLEF page, and the Llannelli Rail Strike website. 



Edited by Mikkel

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Great modelling and  expertly set in historical context . Informative and entertaining, as usual.

Another source  is “The strange death  of Liberal England “ by Dangerfied which broadens its scope onto  general industrial and societal tensions . All to end in the Great War.

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Fantastic modelling and an excellent portrayal of a snap shot of history. Outstanding work Mikkel and a real eye opener.


P.s. I really like the roofing suggestion could be a 'way out' for my particular sticking point. Thanks.

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What a brilliant portrayal, always something different on your blog. 

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First class blog Mikkel. 


Thorough historical research, then using or making models to create a period scene is very innovative, few modellers would attempt it and even fewer would do it so well. Many pay close attention to the trains, but the dioramas you have created there really do bring the history to life. 

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Many thanks everyone!


It's been an interesting learning project. The more you dive into those pre-WW1 years the more you realize how full of tensions and change they were. Although perhaps that's true for any period, present one included? 


It's all a bit stylized of course, it's not easy to capture mass action with a limited number of figures, especially when most of the figures have relaxed poses (which I normally prefer).  I gave up some otherwise interesting scenes for that reason, such as the one at the bottom of the page here:  http://www.gcrsociety.co.uk/photospage3.html


Thanks @Northroader for posting that French scene, very similar! And thanks @1466 for the reference, I was looking for something a bit more in-depth on the broader context, this may be it.


Edited by Mikkel
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Mikkel, which magnets did you use to attach the roof of the Siphon? A quick search proved unfruitful, but it seems such a useful idea.

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Well that was certainly different! Absolutely brilliant Mikkel - so imaginative and yet so well researched - definitely has my nomination for Cameo collection of the year!😀


Until I saw the photos I couldnt believe the soldiers were wearing Bearskind. I wonder if it was to make them look more imposing and/or provide a modicum of protection. I googled out of interest - they were from the 2nd Bn Royal Munster Fusiliers hence the little bomb (fusil) badge on the bearskin. You may want to get your paint brush out!🙄 - only joking


Best wishes



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To hell with these decade-long modelling "periods" - you're pinning the date down to 3 days!


The troops I knew about, but one of those photos seems to show police carrying guns with fixed bayonets.

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1 hour ago, Michael Hodgson said:

The troops I knew about, but one of those photos seems to show police carrying guns with fixed bayonets.

I saw that too and raised an eyebrow.


The British Police History website has an (undated) picture of Devon Constabulary officers parading with fixed bayonets (fourth page of the album here so it appears not to be a unique occurrence. The only other reference I have found simply states that:


The First World War saw the increased arming of virtually every police branch across the UK, with the main aim being to discourage sabotage by infiltrated foreign agents and in case of enemy invasion. War, once again, in 1939 saw rifles issued in limited numbers to the police for the first time for the defence of key police stations against acts of sabotage. These rifles were largely outdated Ross rifles, demonstrating the perceived low importance of armed police by the Home Office even at a time of war. Following the end of the war virtually all the rifles, as well as significant numbers of pistols and revolvers, were withdrawn from police service.

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3 hours ago, Michael Hodgson said:

those photos seems to show police carrying guns with fixed bayonets

...probably light infantry or engineers - see https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/377950593730241411/  for Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry (reference to one regiment as an example of the "policeman" type of uniform). My grandfather wore pretty much the same uniform in the early 1900s in the 'Electrical Engineers' (can't find the photo at the moment).


Wonderful modelling Mikkel: a more than just entertaining addition to the Farthing stories (the escaping eels come to mind) and an education as well.


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14 hours ago, mullie said:

Took me back to my A level history course and the Taff Vale Railway dispute that we looked at..





Interesting, thanks. I knew that there had been local/regional strikes on the railways before the 1911 national strike, but had not realized the importance of the TVR one. I've had a look at this paper by Harvey & Press (gated I'm afraid). Interesting that there was actually a drop in industrial conflict on the railways in the early 1900s, before the 1911-1914 surge:


 "Certainly, the years from the turn of the century down to 1907 were generally peaceful in terms of industrial relations. With militant unionism on the retreat, the membership of the ASRS declined from 62,000 in 1900 to 53,000 in 1904. The tough line taken by the judiciary towards strikes, strengthened by the Taff Vale judgment, led union leaders like Bell to favour conciliation over confrontation. At the same time, while some railway companies were willing to take steps down the road to collective bargaining and union recognition, many others, inspired by Taff Vale, were confirmed in their belief that a hard line must be taken in defence of shareholder interests." (Harvey & Press 2000, p.79).


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13 hours ago, Welchester said:

Mikkel, which magnets did you use to attach the roof of the Siphon? A quick search proved unfruitful, but it seems such a useful idea.


I used the ones described here. It's a Danish outfit, and although they do ship abroad it's presumably cheaper for you to get them locally. But you can see the specifications if you scroll down on that page. These are 4x1mm. The method of mounting is a bit of a botch as it was a secondhand van already built, and with the open doors the only action this vehicle will see anyway is being occasionally parked in a siding. IIRC @Dave John used a neater method, though I can't find it just now.





I've also used some 2x1 mm magnets from the same supplier, although I think those would be too weak for a roof. Good for other purposes though, e.g.:



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13 hours ago, john dew said:

[snip] Until I saw the photos I couldnt believe the soldiers were wearing Bearskind. I wonder if it was to make them look more imposing and/or provide a modicum of protection. I googled out of interest - they were from the 2nd Bn Royal Munster Fusiliers hence the little bomb (fusil) badge on the bearskin. You may want to get your paint brush out!🙄 - only joking [snip]


Yes I also found the bearskins hard to believe at first, especially as some of the shots are clearly posed. But other photos do seem to show that it wasn't just a handful of men wearing them. As you say, perhaps the combination was designed to send a message (deploying the troops was a controversial move, so some thought may have been given to sending the right signals).


The badges on the bearskins can be seen in this postcard:




Edited by Mikkel
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Oops the clock is ticking, I had better get to work now - but thanks everyone for the kind comments - and the info on police and troops, will have a further look into that later.

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While all of your posts are brilliant I think this is the best yet. The figures ,siphon,broken glass all accuratly depicted not to mention the roof held on by magnets. Then there's the Barnum... Thank you for posting . 


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An excellent post, Mikkel. I have to admit I knew very little about the strikes and the army's involvement, it's a very interesting part of history. 

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Brilliant modelling and well observed social history. You really are a great story teller too. i always enjoy stepping through the magic mirror into Farthing and after this episode I’m quite glad I don’t live there.

Ralph Webb

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Brilliant as per usual.  This is a great way to learn about history - these strikes forged the beginning of the Labour Party in Britain and eventually led to democracy for all.  Marxism in action - the workers using the employer’s own technology against them!  You could even say that they were the original Gilet Jaunes as so to speak.  Some of those scenes created are to die for.  Love the research, attention to detail and the way you are prepared to go to the lengths of modeling unique figures, wagons, coaches in order to tell your stories.  The passenger carrying Siphon in particular - a wagon that does indeed confirm that reality is stranger than fiction.  



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