Liverpool City Police

Police Strike 1919

by shaun r. rothwell, retired


The Merseyside of 1919 had a much different complexion than today. Trams rattled through the city streets whilst the Overhead Railway plied its trade from Dingle to Seaforth Sands, along a continuous line of docks with filled ships from every nation in the world. The hills around te City were festooned with row upon row of back to back terraced housing, and they were the better class of accommodation. Where Beat Constables had often to defend their title and then "walk" a prisoner a mile or so back to the Bridewell, hoping that local community did not consider "rescue" as option. Young children, the urchins, playing barefoot in the streets wearing rough denim clothing supplied by the police and stamped to prevent the unscrupulous parents from pawning them.

The first day of August that year was a typical warm summer's day. Though events were taking place on Merseyside that would see a battleship anchored in the river, troops with fixed bayonets and tanks on St. George's Plateau.

In 1918 the Metropolitan Police had gone on strike over recognition of its union. The National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO) was formed in 1910 by John Syme. Syme a former inspector of the Metropolitan Police had been dismissed after he supported 2 constables who had been sacked. It was only the personal intervention of the Prime Minister David Lloyd George that ensured the strike lasted less than a day. As the country was still at war with Germany it was decided that the issue of a police union could be postponed until after hostilities had ended.

NUPPO felt, and it did appear, that the Union had been given tacit approval. On 1st March 1919 a Committee under the Chairmanship of Lord Desborough was convened to look at pay and conditions of all forces throughout England and Wales. At the time there was no unified pay rate across the country; with some forces faring better than others were in terms of pay and conditions. For many years before the start of the first war in 1914 pay and conditions have been a cause for concern.

Desborough would support an increase in pay, a root and branch upheaval of conditions and the introduction of a representative body for the Police Service, the Police Federation. Though the police did not like idea of a Police Federation which had little if any powers to ameliorate their grievances. It was looked on as a "toothless tiger".
The focus of the 1919 strike would again be on Union recognition. NUPPO thought the 1919 strike would receive support nationally but this was not the case. Small strikes occurred in the Metropolitan Police and the Birmingham City Police. Though the centre of the strike would be Merseyside. Liverpool, Birkenhead, Bootle and Wallasey would all see Officers failing to report for duty.


The main reason the strike was more solid in Liverpool than anywhere was due to the Liverpool policemen’s Conditions of Service. The physical conditions, the hours, the discipline regime and the lack of opportunity for advancement.
Life as a constable in Liverpool’s city police was no "Bobby's job". Foot patrol was foot patrol. Constables would parade for duty a quarter of an hour before their start time. The parade was formal, with an inspection and a test that Constable had read everything they should have. On the hour Sergeant’s would march their section out to their respective beats crocodile-style. The beats were fixed, in other words Constables had no discretion they would walk down one street, along another and another until they reached the place they had started. Then they had to be at their Conference Point. A “point” on their beat that they had to be at the same time every hour; as that was what the book said. The Sergeants might be at point or at any time during the watch; he could also use his signalling stick on the flags, a sound that carried, to draw the Constable to him. They knew they had to respond and a “Bobby” was in deep trouble if he missed the sound of that stick. The same thick woollen uniform buttoned to the neck was worn in summer and winter alike. The discipline was rigid, enforced and harsh.

The Liverpool's Watch Committee, who were responsible for city police, were the appellant body for Officers punished by the Head Constable (the term Chief Constable was only used in county forces). On four occasions in 1918 the Watch Committee had dismissed Officers from the service. Their appeals were against an original punishment of a £1 fine.

Liverpool, as a city, had expanded its boundaries on a number of occasions most notably in 1895 and 1912 when large parts of the urban/rural districts that surrounded Liverpool were incorporated into the City. Areas previously under the jurisdiction of the Lancashire Constabulary now became the responsibility of Liverpool's Watch Committee and the city police. The Watch Committee alleged that Central Government had failed to increase the grant given to the city for the upkeep of these areas.
As a consequence the Watch Committee had to become more financially prudent. Their financial prudence would have an effect not only on the officers of the Liverpool City Police but the people of Liverpool. The city force did not implement legislation that had given police officers one rest day a week. In addition Officers who were supposed to work an 8-hour day invariably worked longed hours. Bridewell Sergeants daily worked an extra 2 hours and Mounted Officers an extra 4 hours each day. It was not unusual for a night duty officer to attend court straight after a night’s duty and returning to night duty the same day.

Constable’s weekly pay was lower than a general Labourer was and much lower than a Docker. The Watch Committee dictated where Officers could live and often that was the better part of town. Their pay was further eroded, as rents in the better part of town were always much higher than anywhere else. Rent allowance was not paid.
Amongst the grievances of the strikers was the fact that many promotion candidates within the city police had never performed operational street duty. The experience of the beat, and the knowledge that that experience brought, meant little. Advancement was reserved for the clerks who had never performed ordinary street duty and spent their time within Dale Street police headquarters shuffling paper. It was said that a beat constables promotion chances were limited to sergeant, whilst former clerks would become superintendents. The Head Constable Francis Caldwell was a product of this system. The rank and file also held the opinion that all promotions were based on membership of secret or sectarian societies and organisations.

The Union

Sergeant Robert Tissyman was the Liverpool's NUPPO Leader and organiser of the union’s eight branches in the city. A former coal-miner who had joined the Liverpool City Police in October 1894. At the time of the strike he was a Bridewell Sergeant at Rose Hill (Spike Island) "D" Division covering Scotland Road District of Kirkdale. He was in no doubt that the strike would have wholehearted support not only in the Police Service but also from other trade unionist throughout the City.

In 1911 a Transport Strike had brought the city to its knees. The manner in which the Transport Strike was resolved brought out claims that members of the city police had used their batons with unlawful vigour. These events fostered a climate of hatred between trade unionists and the police. It is not surprising that other unions in Liverpool failed to support a police strike. Though the City would benefit from the knowledge it gained in policing the transport strike in 1911. Police work can often be like that.
In the early hours of Friday 1st August 1919 as the arrival of the London train enveloped Lime Street station in steam strikers eagerly awaited the early edition of the London’s morning newspaper, The Daily Herald. The newspaper said that in London the strike was widespread. This was a journalistic licence as the train had left London some hours before the strike had even started. The reality was that support within the Metropolitan Police was sketchy.

The strikers, though novices in industrial action, soon developed the trade unionist art of persuasion. Bridewells and Police Station across the city were "beset" by groups of striking policemen attempting to gain support from Colleagues who had rejected NUPPO call to refuse duty and strike. Whilst other Strikers scoured the city looking for more converts to their unlawful action. It is not known how many young officers, approached whilst on their beat, were bullied into joining the strike. It is said that in one Bridewell Sergeant locked a number of his Constables in the cells to prevent joining the strike.

Watch Committee

The Watch Committee gave an ultimatum that those men who have failed to parade for duty by 8.00 PM that night (1st August 1919) would be dismissed. About 50 Officers took heed of the warning and returned to duty but the majority ignored it and failed to parade. A similar warning had been given in Force Orders on the 1stApril 1919; those Officers who struck would face dismissal. Numbered amongst those who failed to make the 8.00 PM deadline, were some Officers on rest day. They had taken their families to Southport or New Brighton for the day. They were unaware that colleagues have called at their homes during the day informing off the watch committee's dictum, they too would find themselves looking for work by the closing of this day.

Some heeded the warning and paraded thereby avoiding dismissal. One of whom was Joseph Smith, who later became Chief Constable of Liverpool.

The events

The action of the strikers reduced the strength of the Liverpool Police to half. The absence of police presented the unruly elements of Liverpool with a golden opportunity. On the Friday night with darkness as a cover they attacked shops firstly smashing the windows and then looting the premises. Scotland Road, Byrom Street and Great Homer Street were all subject to the unlawful activities of the mob. Police Officers from Hatton Garden and Rose Hill were quickly on the scene, though whilst they were at one location elsewhere similar events were taking place. Clothes and Shoe shops were the mobs obvious targets but the areas also had jewellers and of course pawn brokers that also fell victim to looters. First light on Saturday morning saw the extent of the mob’s work the previous night; glass littered the street and the odd shoe and discard clothing a reflection of the night’s events.

The city fathers called on the business community to provide men to act as special constables. Those who took up the offer were given a duty armlet and a baton. The remnants of the force were supplemented by police officers from other parts of the country. HMS Valiant had steamed down for the Home Fleet’s base at Sacpa Flow and was anchored in the river. The Army, camped in St. Johns Gardens, they would be used to enforce the security of the Dock Estate.

On the Saturday morning an uneasy peace extended over the city. The events of Friday night would be repeated on Saturday night and Sunday night. In Everton a Magistrate read the Riot Act proclamation, from the safety of an armoured car. It ordered, in the name of the King, the citizens to disperse within one hour and gave the authorities the right to clear the street by why what ever means after the hour’s grace. An hour later the Army fired a volley over the heads of rioters.
The policing experiences gained in 1911 helped Liverpool Chief Officers to plan a strategy. A strategy which would minimise though not prevent the situation. Officers were driven in "motor lorries" to disturbances. Immediately they arrived at a scene of disorder they quickly organised themselves into a baton charge and ran at the rioters, who in turn ran into alleyways were other policemen would often greet them. This tactic had a good success rate, though injuries to the rioters were high.
By the Monday a state of near normality was created. 350 people appeared before the Liverpool Police Court charged with looting and rioting. 3,000 soldiers would be in the city and the police had taken on 200 new recruits. For 954 officers of the Liverpool City Police who had failed to parade for duty. The punishment extracted by the watch committee was severe; every one of those men was sacked. Without any form plea or appeal.
When did the strike end?

The Head Constable’s weekly report to the Watch Committee dated the 8th August 1919 has 955 Officer listed as dismissed and 182 recruits and 32 re-joined pensioners. On 13th August 1919 "A" Division’s Form 102, the Duty State, still has Officers on strike. The Strikers also felt that the strike was on going till the middle of August 1919. Even the exact number of strikers is not clear with one official source saying 955 (Head Constable) whilst another says 954 (Committee of Inquiry)

The strikers were told to return their uniforms and accoutrements to St. George’s Hall. The returned uniforms started to pile up; a mass of blue/black serge often interrupted by splashes of colour. As campaign ribbons above the tunic’s left breast pockets, bore silent witness to the long and meritorious years of service both to the city and the country that the former wearers had given.

The strike was not without elements of pure farce. At Tuebrook Bridewell the Inspector on hearing of the whistles of strikers as they walked from town down West Derby Road ordered officers to abandon the premises and "escape" across the back wall into the adjacent railway goods yard. Much to the amusement of some young children who witnessed this spectacle with incredulity.

Within three days of the strike starting the Liverpool Watch Committee had started to replace the 954 absent officers. Adverts were placed in various newspapers around the country and the replacement officers were accepted from Scotland and Wales and other parts of England, though very few of were from Liverpool itself. Within 12 months quite a few of the 1919 new recruits had left the force either dismissed or disillusioned.

In 1924 a Committee of Inquiry was set up which looked at the issues relating to men dismissed from the police and prison service. Jack Hayes, the Labour MP for Edge Hill, represented the dismissed officers. Hayes was the former secretary of NUPPO, having been a Sergeant within the Metropolitan Police until he was sacked for striking in August 1919. The ultimatum and offer given to strikers by Liverpool’s Watch Committee was considered by the committee and felt to be appropriate. Though allegation were made that the "offer" was not as well publicised as the Watch Committee were suggesting. The committee heard that the majority of strikers had in the main, gained employment. Though it is known that many firms within Liverpool advertised jobs with the rider-dismissed police officers need not apply and as a consequence many strikers left Liverpool. The committee had considered reinstatement of the former officers but heavy lobbying by the watch committee and chief officers succeeded in preventing the Committee from recommending this course of action.

The strikers would find no animosity from their former Colleagues but those feeling were not mutual and many strikers were extremely bitter towards those who hadn't struck. It is ironic that the final money that the strikers got the Liverpool City Police would include increases that had been given as a result of the Desborough findings.
Tisseyman, like the rest of his colleagues, was not reinstated after the strike. He became a political activist joining the Labour Party. Throughout his life he continued to believe in the NUPPO and championed the cause of the unemployed. Tissyman later became a city councillor in 1921 but left the Labour Party and stood as an Independent Labour Councillor. He died in 1936 in Whiston Hospital as a result of neck injuries he received at his home in Huyton. Though he fared a little better than Syme who died a pauper and broken man having spent considerable time in Mental Institutions.

The strike cost the city over £125,000 in repayments under the Riot Damages Act in addition they had to pay for the Army attendance. In the Vauxhall District one man died after he attempted to take a rifle from a soldier guarding premises.

In London 58 City out of 970 and 1056 Met out of 18,200 went on strike, Birmingham 120 out of 1,320, Liverpool 954 out of 1,874, Birkenhead 114 out of 180, Bootle 63 out of 77, Wallasey one man out of 120

In Liverpool a collection was started for the Officers who remained loyal. The Head Constable refused to allow his Officers to take the money and so the money was given in kind. All Constables were given a baton which had a silver ring on which was mentioned the 1919 Police Strike. It is said that Sergeants Uniform Chevrons were broadened and made of silver wire thread, whilst Inspector’s Cap Braid was silver thread as opposed to the traditional black. A Tradition that Merseyside Police still retains today.


Sellwood,A.V - Police Strike 1919 –. ALLEN W.H. 1978

Bean, R. – Police Unrest, Unionisation and the 1919 Strike in Liverpool- Journal of Contemporary History, vol 15 –1980

Report of the Committee on the Police Service in England, Wales and Scotland, part 11, Minutes of Evidence, B.P.P. cmd. 874, 1920 (Desborough Committee)

Thomas, E,- Liverpool Police Strike 1919 – (an unpublished thesis, Liverpool 1986)

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