Category: Events

County Road, 1911

Sefton Street, 1911

Armoured Car

Cricket outside St George’s Hall

Over fifteen years ago, I published a book Near to Revolution by Eric Taplin on the 1911 Transport Strike in Liverpool (not to be confused with the 1926 General Strike). This year Liverpool City Council has launched its City of Radicals 2011 to mark not just the centenary of the strike but a number of other events (including the first Post-Impressionist exhibition outside of London at the Sandon Studios – now Bluecoat Art Centre, the death of Robert Tressell -author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists) – and the first International Women’s Day.
The strike itself should be seen against the background of a divided society, with 120,000 people owning two-thirds of the nation’s wealth. The Industrial Revolution had widened the poverty gap with millions living barely at subsistence levels. Liverpool was a hotbed of activism and there was a growing feeling that a united labour force could take over the means of production. Inspired by radicals such as Tom Mann and Ben Tillett, ‘War’ was declared and industrial action began to spiral out of control. Troops and police from other forces were called in, HMS Antrim was moored in the Mersey and, inevitably, two strikers were shot dead in the most violent strike action seen in Britain. Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary, described the situation as ‘near to revolution’. Panic resolutions to settle with the different unions began to take the sting out of the strike, which had lost some of its willingness to continue after the police and military aggression coupled with the two deaths.
From a photographic point of interest, this was the first major strike to be fully documented photographically and cinematically (although only brief snatches of the film survive). Most of the photographic record is the work of the Carbonora company run by Gwilym Mills. His set of postcards published throughout the strike are now amongst the most collectible of postcards (reaching up to ?100+ per card). Unfortunately, the offices and workrooms of Carbonora were destroyed by enemy bombing and their negatives and archive destroyed (the company still survives as the Mills Media Group).
The top photograph shows a police and army convoy travelling along County Road in Walton. The shops on the left belonged to Robert Crease (a music dealer), Arthur Rattenbury’s tobacconist, and Elizabeth Ford’s hosiery shop. The second photograph, showing troops protecting food supplies in Sefton Street was an American Press print I purchased from a supplier in Dallas – which indicates the international importance of the strike. The other two photographs are my favourites: the rather inadequate riot car (although petrol bombs had not been thought of at that time) and the boys playing cricket on St George’s Plateau in the midst of all the mayhem.

At first glimpse, just a photograph of a Liverpool tobacconist – in this case 426 Edge Lane. Without the caption on the back, this press photograph would simply be a record of a shop advertising the joy of smoking (“For your throat’s sake – smoke Craven A”). The only clue to another storyline is the man with his back to the camera. Surely, if it was the proud shop owner he would be facing the photographer!
The caption reveals all (or nearly all – because I am missing the conclusion). The date is January 24th, 1939: “A member of Liverpool CID locking up the premises of 426 Edge Lane yesterday, The tobacconist occupier, Thomas Edward Kelly, aged 32, was arrested and charged at Liverpool yesterday with having in his possession four kegs of potassium chlorate. He was remanded in custody.”
On January 16th, the IRA launched a campaign of bombing and sabotage directed at government targets such as post offices, bridges and railway stations. The object was material damage – not civilian deaths, although a number of people were injured. Much of the campaign was targeted on London, although Birmingham and Manchester were affected. In the same year, 17 year-old Brendan Behan, a runner for the IRA, was arrested in Liverpool following bombing in Coventry. He was sentenced to 3 years in Borstal – an experience he used in writing Borstal Boy.
I have not been able to follow-up what happened to Thomas Edward Kelly (I need to spend some time in Liverpool Record Office) but it would seem a major bombing attack, possibly in Liverpool, had been averted.
Once again, there is a fascinating story behind a photograph. Sadly, too often, all we are left with is an image with no obvious thread to follow. A lesson to us all – always caption photographs for a future generation.
Postscript: Many thanks to R Walsh who has posted the following information:
Kelly was charged, with eight other Liverpool men of possessing explosives, weapons and ammunition with intent to endanger life and cause destruction of property. Kelly was later accused of being the adjutant of an IRA cell. Five of the men stood trial at Manchester Assizes on conspiracy to cause explosions. One, Hannon, was found guilty and sentenced to seven years penal servitude. The rest, including Kelly, were found not guilty and discharged.
426 Edge Lane stood one along from the corner of Binns Road, going towards town and just opposite The Barbers.

Colin Mcindoe emailed me in reply to a recent blog where he reminisced about his Liverpool schooldays and remembered a short verse he had gleaned from the 1962 Sphinx – that slightly risque Panto magazine that students sold as part of their Rag Week charity drive.

“I wandered lonely as a cloud
that floats on high o’er hills and vales
when all at once I met this lad
a Scouser who had dirty nails.”

It got me thinking as to what happened to Rag Week. Has it just disappeared? I remember the parades they had in Sheffield, with dozens of decorated floats parading through town with students holding out buckets to catch the (old and heavy) pennies that were often thrown at them with deliberate intention to maim. It was a week in which substantial amounts were raised for charities and was one of the few occasions when gown met town.
The press photograph is of a 1936 Rag stunt in Church Street. The caption reads: A happy band of the students playing ‘Ring-a-Roses’ round a traffic policeman in Church Street. I had always thought that Rag week was a post-War phenomenon. Does anyone know its history and what has happened to it? Surely with ten times as many students today, it could make a dramatic revival.