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Tuesday, 13 August 2013 00:00

Echoes of 90 years ago

by Peter Frost

A report on tomorrow's celebration of an important working-class struggle

Tomorrow beside the canal at Braunston in Northamptonshire a crowd will gather beneath a banner reading "1923 Braunston canalboat strike."

Local villagers, canal enthusiasts and local labour movement activists and trade unionists are gathered here today to celebrate an important milestone in working-class and canal history.

In many ways today's colourful gathering echoes what was happening exactly 90 years ago on this very spot.

There are colourful historic narrow boats still bearing the legend of the canal carrier Fellows, Morton and Clayton (FMC).

There are people playing tunes on melodeons and concertinas. These little portable squeezeboxes were the traditional entertainments for the canal families living in the tiny cabins of the narrow boats before radio or TV.

We know from contemporary reports that there was music, dancing and even gramophones among the picketing families.

On the August 13 1923 the entire traffic on the canal, one of Britain's most important and vital transport arteries, came to a total halt.

Braunston's community of boat families on the canal were out on strike.

The Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) had only been formed the previous year. The Braunston canalboat strike was to be a key strike bringing union organisation to an industry with no trade unions.

The TGWU went on to be the biggest union in the world. Tomorrow it is part of the giant Unite union, which is a major supporter of these 90th anniversary celebrations.

In the 1920s, threatened by the competition from the railways and the general economic recession, canal employers like FMC told the boat families that they would be cutting wages yet again, this time by another 6.5 per cent.

The strike was to last for 14 weeks.

At Braunston dozens of boats were tied up in the approaches to the FMC wharf and along both sides of the Oxford and Grand Junction canals.

After six or so hungry weeks the striking boat workers were sent a letter containing formal notice. The letters went on to demand they quit their boats. In many cases the tiny boat cabins were their homes.

The TGWU instructed the workers to ignore the threatening letters and to stand firm.

FMC threatened the sackings because it was desperate to unload the strike-bound cargoes - 1,000 tons of sugar and tea - onto lorries and to deliver them by road.

Three boats were moved from the wharf to the canal proper. Scabs attempted to unload the boats. The strikers resisted this extreme provocation.

The strikers and their women supporters moved in and stopped the unloading.

Then another attempt was made to unload the boats. This time police were drafted in to supervise the strike-breaking.

Under strong police protection the boats were finally unloaded. The foreman of the wharf ended up in the canal tossed in by an angry boat captain.

At last, after 14 hard weeks, the strike was settled in some complicated legal actions in the courts.

The strike was an important victory - it brought trade unions to the canals and led to many fundamental improvements in the conditions of boat workers and their families.

That's what we are celebrating at Braunston.

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