On the 5th of September 1911, a UK-wide strike wave of schoolchildren was sparked when pupils in Llanelli, Wales walked out in sympathy with a boy who was disciplined by a deputy headmaster. From this one school, walkouts spread across the country to at least 62 towns and cities, with pupils demanding an end to corporal punishment and shorter hours. The schoolchildren’s strikes followed a summer of workers’ industrial disputes.
In the present climate of growing unrest with the consequences of the authoritarian assault on children’s, young people’s, parents’ and workers’ rights, indeed upon society as a whole is inspiration to be found in this history.
There is a wonderful pamphlet about the walkouts, written by Dave Marston, a docker and Ruskin student in 1973.
The children’s strikes of 1911, as Dave Marson shows in this pamphlet, were part of the huge upheaval of labour in the long, hot summer of 1911. The industrial unrest has often been written about: the school strikes are Dave Marson’s own discovery. He came upon them by accident when researching the history of his own people, the Hull dockers. He has followed the strike movement all over the country and has set them in both a school and a community context. The school situation which he describes has by no means disappeared: nor have the difficulties of organising resistance. The writer is a working docker, who was a student at Ruskin in 1970-2.
He begins his marvellous piece.
I came upon the children’s strikes of 1911 by accident. I was researching into the Hull Dock Strike of 1911, and reading through the Hull newspapers of that year when I noticed a small paragraph relating to a strike of Hull school children which took place in September 1911. It seemed no more than a curiosity, an illustration of the extent of the industrial unrest taking place at that time. What struck me first was the story about a policeman having to mount his bicycle and charging at the youthful strikers who had formed a picket line outside their school. The mere sight of a blue uniform was enough to frighten me and my school friends.
What set me looking further into things was one line in the report which said that the Hull boys were following the example of children in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Then looking through another Hull newspaper I discovered a front page splash – with photographs and a story about the strike. The newspaper listed all the different classes of workers who had been out on strike in Hull during that hot summer – cement workers – factory girls – seamen and dockers, and connected the children’s strike to them. It was a photograph that really affected me – it was a picture of the children picketting the gates of Courtney Street Primary School, the same school I had been to myself. I identified myself with those strikers – some of them might have been the parents of the children I went to school with.
When I looked at the Times I found that children’s strikes were taking place not only in Yorkshire but all over the country. At first I couldn’t believe it – how could it have taken place so quickly and all over the country – I’d always believed that strikes were something which had to be organised. I felt that these children were trying to say something. I did not realise how many places were affected until I started reading through the local newspapers at Colindale. These showed that there were many more than the Times had reported.
Dave ends after cataloguing an amazing variety of children’s responses across the country.
Away from their classrooms the jubilant children began to express themselves in various ways. To some it would be a ‘street theatre’ and to others the sheer feeling of freedom would exhilarate them enough to address the crowds of boys in the manner of the factory-gate or street-corner agitator. To the newspaper columnists they were ‘Dunces’; ‘The Truant Class’; ‘Children from the Poorer Areas’. This attitude shows how the respectable classes regarded them. Throughout the country children began to show originality and independence.
The strikes were not all violent. In Hartlepool the boys walked along the sands and picnicked, taking advantage of the splendid late Summer weather. In other places they went swimming or simply sat around discussing general topics; they played at being soldiers and paraded; some sang patriotic songs.
In Northampton strikers went blackberrying. But more important they entertained themselves with their own music making up the words to songs. These children, despite their stifling schooling showed their minds had not been overwhelmed by the gray monotonies of the class-room. They still retained imagination with ideas like the colours in a paint-box.