The Friday Comment is a section on BGL which gives people the space to talk about stuff in Leeds, occasionally posted at 2pm on Fridays; if you would like to have your say then please get in touch by emailing us on firstname.lastname@example.org. This week we have Chris Nickson.
The strikers win. That’s not something people have read in several decades. It was even rarer in the high capitalism of Victorian times. But there was a memorable instance when the workers beat the bosses. In 1890. And it happened it Leeds.
Leeds Corporation had bought the private gas companies that supplied the homes, factories and street lamps of the town at the end of the 1860s, and, with prices going down to consumers, there’d been pressure to cut costs. Everything was run by the Gas Committee, and in 1890 they came up with an idea that could slash expenditure.
The year before, the workers, most of whom belonged the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers of Great Britain and Ireland, had demanded a shorter working day and the committee had been forced to give in. But they were plotting their revenge. With summer around the corner there would be less demand for gas. If they put the stokers of the furnaces on four-month contracts, many could be laid off during the warm weather, then rehired when needed. The committee also decided to twist the knife by refusing to pay the men for the Good Friday holiday. They refused to even negotiate with the union.
The workers held their meetings, strikes were mooted, and the committee began making plans for replacement workers. The first clash came on June 25th, when staff at the New Wortley Gasworks were pulled away from their duties to clear space for the incoming blacklegs. They walked out and others following.
By the following Monday, June 30, with no one making gas, supplies were critically low. The first flash point came in the afternoon as carters tried to deliver a marquee to the Meadow Lane Gasworks to house the replacement workers. The strikers picketing the works pulled the drivers from their seats and beat them. The marquee only finally made it inside the gates after the Chief Constable and top police brass arrived on their horses, helped by a number of constables, to escort it through.
The plan was for the replacement workers to arrive at the Midland Railways Station in Holbeck – right across the road from the Meadow Lane Gasworks – in the dead of night. But the strikers found out and spread the word through chalked notices on the pavement – the instant messaging of its day. An angry crowd was ready and waiting. And waiting and waiting. By three-thirty a.m. it became obvious they weren’t coming.
But the blacklegs had arrived. The problem was they’d been sent to the main station instead, and from there hustled to the Town Hall while the authorities decided what to do. Meanwhile, a massive crowd, thousands strong, filled Victoria Square and the Headrow. To add to the confusion, more blacklegs arrived – in Holbeck – at five a.m. and were hastily shepherded across to the works.
It was beginning to look like anarchy in Leeds, and when dragoons were summoned from York, the danger of another Peterloo was rising.
On Tuesday, July 1, the blacklegs who’d arrived early that morning started work at the Meadow Road Gasworks. But when the strikers talked to them over the wall, they discovered the men hadn’t been told they’d be strikebreaking; their information was that they were going to a brand-new plant. Many of them downed tools – but the Gas Committee refused to pay their fares home.
The main body of replacement workers, several hundred strong, were stuck at the Town Hall until the troops arrived. The Corporation ordered the Leeds citizenry to keep the peace, more police were drafted in from neighbouring towns, and finally the cavalry, bolstered by foot soldiers from the barracks in Sheepscar, arrived in the evening. They formed the guard for the workers as they set out for the New Wortley Gasworks.
However, the authorities forgot that the route along Wellington Road went under a railway bridge. A host of strikers gathered up there, raining down bricks, iron, bottles and anything they could find. The cavalry panicked and charged the demonstrators who followed the procession. Luckily, no one died, and the blacklegs made it to the works. But, as at Meadow Lane, the strikers climbed on the walls and talked to them, assuring them they’d be safe if they walked out. And by morning, most of them had.
About fifty of the blacklegs remained at Meadow Lane, and they came under assault from the mob, their police guard taking the worst of it. And Leeds still had no gas.
Wednesday brought a council meeting, where Alderman Gilston, head of the Gas Committee, was vilified by his colleagues for his actions. But he could announce that arbitration between the committee and the union had begun under the auspices of the Chamber of Commerce, and would continue the next day.
Those replacements who’d stayed at the works still remained in danger. The situation was so volatile that the Mayor read the Riot Act for the first time in many years. But, in reality, things were improving. A little after noon on Thursday the Union and the Gas Committee reached an agreement – essentially, the committee caved in, the only concession given being that the stokers would increase production. Gilston, a disgraced man, gave the news to the council that afternoon – and left them with the problem of what to do with the replacements, all of whom had signed work contracts.
Again, the Chamber of Commerce negotiated, and next morning a lump sum payment for those replacements who’d stayed was agreed upon. They were taken to the station, given their tickets and put on trains.
Friday evening the regular men reported for their shifts to the works. They’d won a remarkable victory, and very soon the gas was back on in Leeds.
Chris Nickson is the author of the Richard Nottingham novels, set in Leeds in the 1730s, the most recent of which is At the Dying of the Year. Buy his books here. He’s currently working on a mystery set around the gas strike. Read the opening here.