Belfast 1932

Outdoor Relief Workers’ Strike

I ask you here today to try to realise the temper of these poor people… and I say that if you do not meet your responsibilities at a time of distress, you are courting disaster.

Harry Diamond, speaking to colleagues on the Belfast Board of Guardians during the Outdoor Relief Workers’ Strike

All over Ireland and Britain poor people were protesting their conditions, in work and out-of-work.

Jack Beattie was the only Labour MP in Northern Ireland in 1932. He was a fierce critic of the Guardians and the Unionist Party. So was Labour councillor Harry Midgley.

Tommy Geehan and Betty Sinclair helped set up the Revolutionary Workers’ Group (RWG). They organised rallies and spoke up for the unemployed. The RWG became the driving force behind the Outdoor Relief Workers’ Strike

Image: The Parliament building at Stormont was built in 1932. The British Treasury gave £1.7 million to build Stormont. The Northern Ireland government spent an extra £30,000 of public money on it (© AP Photo/Len Putnam).

On 30th September 1932 Jack Beattie tried to raise the plight of the unemployed in Parliament. When he was not allowed to speak he got so angry he threw the ceremonial mace on the floor. The dent he made is still visible on the mace (Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Northern Ireland Assembly Commission).

Ceremonial Mace image

First week of the strike

Outdoor Relief workers and supporters march through Belfast.

Image: Outdoor Relief workers and supporters march through Belfast on 4th October (Northern Whig and Belfast Post, source undated).

Despite months of complaints about conditions for the unemployed, nothing improved. On 30th September 1932 Tommy Geehan spoke at a mass meeting of Catholic and Protestant Outdoor Relief workers. He encouraged them to go out on strike.

On 3rd October up to 60,000 strikers and supporters marched to Custom House to hear speeches and listen to protest songs. On 4th October 7000 went to the Lisburn Road workhouse, where the Board of Guardians met. The Guardians allowed a few in to make their demands, but insisted it was up to the government to act.

On 5th October police stopped another march with armoured cars. Later there were riots and the police charged the crowds.

Meanwhile the RWG and others organised help for the strikers and their families. Local businesses donated bread, oats, potatoes and tea and money was collected door-to-door. Charities helped as well. Volunteers made parcels of food and cash for each family.

A ‘side’ or ‘big’ drum donated to the Ulster Museum.

Image: A ‘side’ or ‘big’ drum donated to the Ulster Museum by the National Union of Tailors and Garment Makers in 1972. This drum accompanied marchers to the workhouse on the Lisburn Road on 4th October 1932 (© National Museums Northern Ireland, Collection Ulster Museum).

Second week of the strike

Belfast businesses were losing trade, and by 10th October the government made strikers an offer. Strikers agreed it wasn’t enough and planned another huge march. Using the Special Powers Act again, the government banned mass gatherings and brought in the army.

On 11th October streets were barricaded against police and police tried to prevent food parcels coming through. Then they began shooting at the crowds.

On 13th October 4000 millworkers went on strike. More than 100 people had been arrested for rioting. The police had shot and killed two people, Samuel Baxter, a Protestant, and John Keenan, a Catholic.

On 14th October tens of thousands attended the men’s funerals. Tom Mann, a famous British trade unionist, came. He was arrested at the cemetery gate and deported.

Children being fed milk at Belfast Central Mission during the Outdoor Relief Workers’ Strike.

Image: Children being fed milk at Belfast Central Mission during the Outdoor Relief Workers’ Strike (image courtesy of Belfast Central Mission).

 Mourners follow Samuel Baxter’s coffin to the cemetery.

Image: Mourners follow Samuel Baxter’s coffin to the cemetery (Northern Whig and Belfast Post, source undated).

Fellow workers, we have got to win this fight. If we don’t win it, the future will only hold for us the same mass misery, mass poverty and mass destitution.

Tommy Geehan, speaking at Custom House on 3rd October

 Street barricades in the Short Strand area.

Image: Street barricades in the Short Strand area. On 12th October the police forced Guardian and city councillor James Collins out of bed to take down a barricade in his street. He worked all night half-dressed in the rain (Belfast Telegraph, 12th October 1932, p14).

Ending the strike

The end of the strike is announced in the Belfast Telegraph.

Image: The end of the strike is announced in the Belfast Telegraph on 15th October 1932 (p11)

Quotes not otherwise attributed from Munck and Rolston, Belfast in the Thirties.

On Friday 14th October Belfast City Councillors, including 10 unionists, asked the government to give in. The government feared losing support, and policing the riots was expensive. The Guardians were told to raise relief rates and get Outdoor Relief work going again by Monday.

A married couple would now be allowed 20 shillings per week in cash, not food vouchers. The highest rate would be 32 shillings per week for people with five or more children. This was still lower than the equivalent rate in England. Single men did not get anything.

The strikers agreed to agreed to accept the offer. Tommy Geehan called it ‘a glorious victory’.