Wednesday 2 October 2019

Stranded at Crewe - the 1919 National Rail Strike

This blog post was written by Susan Chambers and focuses on the experiences of some of the soldiers stranded at Crewe during the National Rail Strike of 1919. You can read more about the Crewe Sailors and Soldiers Rest in Susan's previous blog posts. 

The road passing Crewe Station - the ‘Rest’ was on the left

The year of 1919 was drawing into autumn, and the men who had fought in the recent Great War were still being demobilised, repatriated or relocated to other troubled spots across the globe.

Many soldiers were changing trains at Crewe Station and indulging in a meat pie, sandwich or cake and a mug of tea, coffee or Oxo at the Sailors and Soldiers Rest while they waited.

However, on the night of Friday 26th September a period of disruption lasting nine days began. A strike of 400,000 railwaymen (members of the NUR and ASLEF trade unions) had been called in response to a reduction in the rates of pay that had been negotiated in the war years.

Extract from the Railway Service Journal, (Journal of the Railway, Clerical, Administrative, Supervisory, Professional and Technical Staff)  1919. RCA is Railway Clerical and Administrative- who decided to stay neutral.

During the strike over 300 men visited the Rest, many of them unable to go any further. According to the Cheshire Observer, some travellers stuck at Crewe converted train compartments into temporary homes, and a wealthy American gentleman at Crewe who offered to pay generously for a special train to London was refused and had to finish the journey by car!

The Rest visitors’ book was well used during this period, with comments ranging from those simply stating that they were stranded to slightly more witty offerings:

Comment made by L. Cpl. J. Kewley and Cpl. R Kewley of the South Lancs Regiment, otherwise known as the "The Pe’kewley’ar Couple”

Other comments were as follows:

From  another South Lancs Rgt man heading for County Cork:
Stranded at Crewe after 9 hrs ride from London through strike’

Some were heading for the Army base at Ripon:
Stranded at Crewe owing to Railway Strike, just returned from Germany, WHAT A reception’.

Several were heading for the base at Prees Heath in Shropshire and grateful for the Rest :
Stranded at Crewe, a good welcome at Rest Hut’
Just arrived to get demobbed, could not go any further than Crewe at CEMS’ (Church of England Mens Society, the organisers)

Corporal Essen of the Northants Regiment (we forget how young many of these lads were):
‘Demobb on My Birthday, 20. Held up owing to Strike.’ 

Driver S. Hooley, Royal Army Service Corps heading for London:
Stranded owing to the Strike after fighting 3 ½ years for liberty’

Two members of the 1stArgyll & Southern Highlanders:
Gott strafe the Strikers’ and ‘Double ditto’

Lots of other comments:
Fighting for your Country for 3 years, Tommy has to walk home’
‘Fortnight’s rest on Crewe Station’
‘A Digger stranded in a strange town’ ‘Saved from the Streets’
‘Stranded owing to our “Comrades” the Railway men’
‘How little one thinks of another’
‘No money no socks no boots’
‘Roll on October, then what-oh for India (Punka fand)’
‘Down with J.H Thomas’  (ie General Secretary of the NUR)

From 2 members of Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry from Sheffield:
‘Damn NUR’  and ‘Another Pint Please’

Someone wished them well…
Every wish for a Striking Success’

Many were just grateful for what the Rest provided:
Most grateful for kindness and comfort when stranded’
‘Stranded – Sweet cup of Tea’
‘This place indeed is a friend in need, from Palestine’
‘Cheered 4 weary comrades. Stranded on Demob’
‘Many thanks for a good haven’

From W. Lloyd (Southport) of the 1st Battalion The King’s Regiment, late Liverpool Pals (interesting handwriting!) Says he visited the delightful place on the day he proceeded for demobilisation. His mate from Walton says similar.

The stranded troops were from many different units including the Army Cyclist Corps, Sherwood Rangers, Royal Air Force, Royal Army Medical Corps, Australian N&M Forces, Royal Army Service Corps, Royal Engineers Signals, HMS Eagle, HMS Kendal, 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, Argyll & Southern Highlanders, RASC Remounts, Royal Marines, Machine Gun Corps, SS Dakar, Tank Corps and many other Regiments throughout the country. Many were heading to or from various camps such as Brocton, Grantham, The Curragh, Aldershot, Tidworth and Woolwich.

After nine days of strike action, the government agreed to maintain wages for another year. Subsequent negotiations resulted in the standardisation of wages across the railway companies and the introduction of a maximum eight hour day.

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