The Belfast Outdoor Relief Strike of 1932

Yes! We have no bananas,
We have no bananas today.
We’ve string beans, and onions,
Cabbages and scallions
And all kind of fruit, and say,
We have an old fashioned tomato
Long Island potato,
But yes! We have no bananas,
We have no bananas today!

If you had happened to be in Belfast on Monday 3 October, 1932, you’d have heard the refrain of the music hall favourite, “Yes! We have no bananas”, as 30,000 Catholic and Protestant workers led by bands marched singing to Custom House to protest against the arrangements for ‘outdoor relief’, a system of unemployment benefit available only to unemployed married men who were classed as fit for work and regarded as requiring “exceptional distress relief”. Single men, the disabled, the ill, and women who were not entitled were forced into the tender administrations of the Work House.

Since its creation as a legal entity on 3 May, 1921, under the Government Act of Ireland 1920, Northern Ireland had experienced high unemployment with levels never falling below 15 percent during the 1920s. The effects of the Great Depression following the Wall Street Crash in 1929 led to a worsening situation as unemployment rose to 37 percent. Shipbuilding, Belfast’s most important industry, was hardest hit with 73 percent of its workforce out of work in 1932 following Harland & Wolff’s mass layoff that saw their workforce reduced from 30,000 to 1,200. Meanwhile America and Canada had begun issuing one-way tickets home to unemployed immigrants who had not gained citizenship.

Unemployed men who met the strict conditions of the Means Test were entitled to benefit, the dole, under Britain’s national system of unemployment insurance. This entitled those eligible to 15 weeks of unemployment benefits. With unemployment rampant many found themselves still out of work after their period of entitlement ended and found themselves reliant on local relief systems. In Belfast, where the Poor Law was still in effect local relief was managed by the local Board of Guardians, a body elected by rate-payers to administrate poor relief and the workhouses.

Two kinds of relief were offered by the Board. Indoor relief gave the unemployed accommodation and sustenance in return for work within the workhouse. Outdoor relief, available only to married men, did not require entry into the workhouse offering support in money or in kind. In Northern Ireland those in receipt of outdoor relief were required to perform task work on public works schemes such as road maintenance in return for nominal wages. In Belfast a married man with one child would receive 12 shillings a week for such work, compared to the 35 shillings paid in Glasgow. The system also offered non-cash payments in the form of a signed credit note that could only be redeemed at a few largely Unionist owned shops, many of which were run by members of the Belfast Board of Guardians. The names of those entitled to outdoor relief but who were not fit for work were publicly posted on lampposts and gable ends in the city.

Between April 1930 and June 1932 the number of persons receiving outdoor relief in Belfast rose from 1,816 to 9,744, with the costs to the Board rising from £2,200 to £4,254 in the same period. With the Belfast Board dominated by Unionist interests Catholic workers found themselves discriminated against, with 60 percent of those refused outdoor relief in the period being male Catholics.

As conditions for the unemployed worsened, tensions began to rise in the city. The Belfast Branch of the newly formed Revolutionary Workers Group, from which the Communist Party of Ireland was to evolve in 1933, set up an Outdoor Relief Workers Committee in July 1932. In the Workers’ Voice of 23 July, Thomas Geehan, a leading Belfast Communist called for a “United Front” to work “for adequate relief for all unemployed workers” and to fight “against any further wage cuts”. Within days the Belfast Relief Workers Committee had been established. At a meeting in August, which was attended by 5,000 people, the committee demanded that the Board abolish task work, increase weekly relief to 15 shillings and 3 pence for married men, 8 shillings for their wives, and 1 shilling for each child, pay an adequate allowance to unmarried men and women not in receipt of the dole, and pay for work performed on street improvements and other public works at trade union rates.

Unmoved by these demands the city council, the Belfast Corporation, exacerbated the situation by cutting the wages of engineering employees by 10 per cent in September, whilst removing previously imposed cuts from its higher paid officials yet retaining the cuts already made to other lower paid workers. On 30 September 1932 as MP Jack Beattie accused the Northern Ireland Parliament of “hypocrisy while there are starving thousands outside” the relief workers voted to strike if their demands were not met.

The strike began on the morning of Monday 3 October 1932. Support among the relief workers was 100 per cent solid and the evening saw them joined by supporters as a crowd of 30,000 marched from Frederick Street Labour Exchange to Custom House. They were joined by sectarian marching bands from the Catholic and Protestant communities who played ‘Yes! We have no bananas’, allegedly the only neutral, non-sectarian song they knew in common. On the following morning 7,000 people marched to the Lisburn Road workhouse where the Board of Guardians refused to accede to their demands, agreeing instead to write to the government to request more relief.

On Wednesday 5 October the marchers found themselves faced with a large Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) presence supported by Lancia armoured cars. Baton charges by the RUC had little effect and 144 strikers got past the police lines and were admitted to the workhouse as inmates. Their protest continued inside when they refused to go to bed at 8 p.m., instead singing and dancing into the night. The following morning three were arrested and the rest were thrown out of the workhouse after demanding eggs for breakfast.

Meanwhile riots had broken out in the city. Shops were looted, a tram hijacked, and the RUC baton charged crowds as they formed. As rioting continued over the next few days the Mayor of Belfast, Crawford McCullagh, called a meeting of representatives from the Guardians to discuss concessions that would put an end to the strike. Increased relief rates were not on the table however. Instead the strikers were offered more relief work with increased rates for extra time worked.

At a meeting in St Mary’s Hall the strikers refused to accept these terms, demanding full rates of pay for all relief work they performed and an increase in outdoor relief rates as per the programme established in August. A rent strike was declared and a mass demonstration called for 11 October, which was promptly banned by the government under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act of 1922. The Royal Enniskillen Fusiliers were put on standby and the RUC were issued with rifles in addition to their standard issue revolvers.

The strikers plan was to march once more from the city centre to the workhouse and as the demonstrators began to gather they were faced with armed police supported by armoured cars. Near midday the police dispersed a crowd marching into the centre from the east of the city. Three men were arrested and the crowd threw stones as the police removed them in an armoured car. The RUC responded with baton charges, hospitalising three people. Trouble quickly spread to the Catholic Falls where after a lengthy confrontation the RUC opened fire on the crowd in response to being sniped by revolvers. Samuel Baxter, a Protestant worker from Regent Street, was shot dead. John Geehan, a Catholic, was to die of gunshot wounds in hospital the following day.

Violence escalated quickly as protestors and RUC clashed around the city. Shops were looted, and in Albert Street a lorry carrying stout was waylaid and robbed. Corporation property was a particular target for destruction, with huts, sewer pipes, and even city owned tools being destroyed. As the RUC gained control of the main thoroughfares the rioters dispersed into the side streets and alleys, erecting barricades and digging trenches. Police charges were met with volleys of stones. A cordon was drawn around the city and no-one was permitted to enter except on official business. At 6 p.m. the government issued a curfew order ordering all persons in the city to remain indoors between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. Fighting continued into the evening and night. By 11 p.m. all the fire engines in the city were out dealing with acts of incendiarism.

The following day saw more confrontations between RUC and rioters. By now 3,000 police were on the streets and in the side alleys children dug up cobblestones to provide ammunition for the striking workers. Looting continued and in response to attacks on food delivery fans in the Falls a ban on food deliveries to the area was imposed by the authorities. As the day wore on fewer incidents were reported and by the hours of curfew the streets were practically deserted, perhaps in part due to the torrential rain that was now falling.


Children and women take a break from preparing rock to pose for the camera, Belfast 1932

Meanwhile, on the night of 11 October the Belfast Trades Council had called on the trade unions to support an immediate general strike in sympathy with the relief workers demands. On 12 October the Mayor met with trades union representatives and employers to discuss changes to relief pay to bring them into line with those in the rest of the United Kingdom.  With the Minister for Home Affairs seeking a swift end to the unrest, negotiations between the government and the Board of Guardians began.

Though rioting had stopped Belfast remained tense. The curfew remained in place and a ban on all demonstrations was imposed. The 2nd Battalion King’s Royal Rifles were deployed to the city from their barracks in Tidworth. British newspapers were rife with speculation about a Red Terror behind the protests and when Tom Mann, founder of the Communist Party of Great Britain, travelled to Belfast to attend the funeral of Samuel Baxter, he was promptly deported, having been detained at the gates of the cemetery as the funeral came to a finish.

On 14 October the Ministry of Home Affairs for Northern Ireland announced that grants of outdoor relief to those in distress would be increased. A man and wife would receive two-and-a-half days work and 20 shillings a week; married couples with one child 24 shillings and three days work; couples with three or four children, three-and-a-half days work and 28 shillings; and those with more than four children, 32 shillings and four days work a week. The terms were communicated to the strike committee by a delegation from the Trades Council and, following a meeting in St Mary’s Hall at which Geehan proposed the terms be accepted, the strikers returned to work on Monday 17 October.

Though significant gains had been made for married workers the strikers had failed to achieve their demand that single persons also be entitled to relief. Following the strike left wing Labour Party members established a breakaway organization campaigning on behalf of single workers, while the Trades Council set up their own organization or the unemployed. Internecine strife between these and the Outdoor Relief Workers Committee left the unemployed movement in Belfast fractured and uncoordinated. By December the Board of Guardians were to announce that the new rates were maximums that could be reduced, while in practice payment of the new rates was not universally applied. The Board was to reduce the rates of payment on more than one occasion in ensuing years.

The 1932 Belfast Outdoor Relief Strike took place against a wider background of mass unemployment in Britain.  On 14 October. as negotiations took place to resolve the Belfast strike, the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement began a march to London to present a petition to Parliament demanding the abolition of the Means Test. As in Belfast the government reaction was harsh. 70,000 police were deployed against the marchers and their supporters and force was used to stop the petition reaching Parliament. On 27 October at Hyde Park police launched a series of baton charges against a crowd of tens of thousands of workers that had assembled in support of the petition. Three days later the police again attacked demonstrators in Trafalgar Square and at Charing Cross Station they detained the deputation which were to present the petition and seized the document, leading to widespread outbreaks of violence around London.

The reaction of the British Government and its organs of state to the situation in Belfast and London in 1932 speaks volumes about its attitude to dissent. Concerned with the maintenance of law and order and fearful of Communist inspired insurrection the state reacted to suppress the protests of the unemployed and the working class, in effect creating the unrest they feared by escalating peaceful protest into violent confrontation. From the workers’ perspective the Belfast strike demonstrated that organized collective protest and active resistance to the state could effect change. Though it was short-lived the strike also showed that collective experience and common goals could unite both sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland as Protestants and Catholics joined forces. Throughout the 1930’s the British Government struggled with the serious issue of unemployment, with economic policies largely failing to restore growth. Benefits continued to be cut and in September 1939 unemployment in Britain still stood at 7.9 percent. With bitter irony it was the Second World War and its demands for industrial and other market sector output that all but eliminated British unemployment within two years.

In December 1932 the Communist paper the Daily Worker issued a series of appeals to its readers to demonstrate their support to Tom Mann and Emrhys Llewellyn on 19 December, when they were to submit a petition to Parliament demanding an end to the Means Test. “Starvation”, wrote the Daily Worker, “is attacking every working-class home. Weak, under-nourished, and under-clad men, women, and children are facing the blackest winter in history … All over the country wives of unemployed workers are struggling desperately to protect their children against the starvation which follows on low scales of unemployment benefit … Look at the shops crammed with good things for the children of the rich! Look at the plight of the worker’s child denied food!”

The language may have been emotive but it reflected a reality that was the experience of millions of people in 1930’s Britain. A reality captured most famously by George Orwell in 1937 when The Road to Wigan Pier was published. Infant mortality increased, death in childbirth was on the rise, and the poor suffered disproportionately from death by disease as a result of being malnourished. In County Durham 80 percent of children living in the mining communities suffered from rickets. The Ministry of Health seemed blind to the situation when they published their Annual Report for 1932. There was “no available medical evidence sickness or mortality which can be traced to the effects of economic depression or unemployment,” wrote the Chief Medical Officer, George Newman.

Politicians instead blamed inadequate diets on a lack of education or the fecklessness of the poor. In 1934 John Reith, Director-General of the BBC, was summoned to Downing Street where the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, informed him that the BBC series on poverty in Britain, “Time To Share”, could not continue. To his credit Reith told MacDonald that if the BBC were forced to pull the programme they would replace it with 20 minutes of silence and it would be announced that this was because the government had “refused to allow the unemployed to express their view.” MacDonald backed down and the series continued to air. On two occasions the British Board of Film Censors refused permission to make a film of Walter Greenwood’s 1933 bitter novel of working class poverty, Love on the Dole.

In 2008 to 2009 Britain suffered its deepest recession since 1944, further exacerbated by the global financial crisis. As unemployment rose a new Tory dominated coalition government came into power in 2010. With a commitment to cut the United Kingdom’s deficit the government introduced a series of measures aimed at reducing government expenditure by billions.  Unsurprisingly it is the unemployed and the working poor who have suffered the most. While the 1,000 richest people in Britain doubled their wealth between 2009 and 2014 the government introduced benefit cuts that made the poor worse off. An increase in Value Added Tax, stagnant wages, and rising prices of food, oil, and domestic fuel have placed further stress on thousands of families. Meanwhile the long-term unemployed found themselves the target of government politicians and the right-wing media focused attention on them, framing discussions about the welfare state around the issue of the undeserving poor. All the time conveniently ignoring the fact that direct unemployment benefits account for just a fraction of the £212 billion that will be spent on pensions, welfare, and tax credits in 2014-15.

So far, so depressingly familiar, but similarities to Britain in the 1930’s do not end there. In 2013-14 913,138 people in Britain received three days emergency food from Trussell Trust food banks, compared with 346,992 in 2012-13. In the eight years to July 2013 food prices in Britain increased by 43.5 percent. The abolition of the Social Fund has prevented thousands from accessing crisis loans when in dire need. Unemployment, delays to social security payments and benefits sanctions combined with shrinking incomes, low pay, and rising living costs have led to a rise in food poverty. Tellingly of those resorting to food banks, a service of last resort, 49 percent are thought to have been referred due to problems that originate in the current government’s welfare reforms and failures in the social security system. That nearly a million people relied on food handouts in the world’s sixth largest economy in 2013-14 is nothing short of scandalous. Sadly we are not as far removed from the 1930’s as we may think.

Drum of the Irish Unemployed Workers Accordion Band

Drum of the Irish Unemployed Workers Accordion Band

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