Austerity: 1920s style


In the aftermath of the First World War trade unions were deeply woven into national life. Wartime strikes had won pay rises and the government had even forced munitions employers to recognise unions. And now firefighters had their own distinct trade union.

At least, those in London did. The Firemen’s Trade Union (FTU) repre­sented the vast bulk of firemen working for the London Fire Brigade.

But outside London, firemen – and they were just men back then – belonged to a range of unions, representing corpo­ration and municipal workers and more.

The FTU then was largely made up of firemen who had moved en bloc from the broad-based National Union of Corporation Workers, led there by Jim Bradley, a former NUCW branch secretary.

Bradley – socialist, activist and now assistant general secretary of the FTU, would take over as general secretary – a job he had effectively been doing from the start – in 1922. The union was renamed the Fire Brigades Union in 1930.

The FTU had provided welfare for a couple of hundred or more private firemen – part of the hotch potch of fire provision at that time. Professional brigades and police fire brigades predominated – but insurance companies and other private employers were also in the mix.

Bradley was an effective, plain-speaking workers’ champion. The evidence he gave to the Middlebrook inquiry in 1920 is worth dwelling on.

Bradley and London firefighters were among those calling for a government inquiry into firefighters’ pay and conditions outside the capital.

1,000 MEMBERS

London firefighters had secured their own, if rather bizarre, negotiating machinery with the London County Council. The FTU now had 1,000 members in 35 brigades, mostly clustered around London.

At the inquiry, Bradley spelled out union policy. Men in brigades outside London should have the same rates of pay and working conditions as those inside, and therefore better pensions. “The risks that he runs to health are much greater than … other municipal servants.”

The union was keen to represent all firefighters, but faced major constraints beyond the capital. The 1919 Police Act banned police even from joining a union, let alone striking. “Fire bobbies” – members of police fire brigades – could not join the FTU.

This suited local authori­ties hostile to the very idea of firemen in unions. Those keen to economise in austere times could merge fire and police services. Save costs and shut out unions – a post-war austerity double whammy. Manchester City Council did just that in 1920 – just as 100 men had joined the Workers’ Union (a large general union of the day), demanding an eight-hour day. They didn’t get it.

Bradley’s appearances before Sir William Middlebrook give many tanta­lising glimpses of life on station.

The last fire brigade horses to be used in London, in 1921, were “brigade greys” Nora and Lucy, stationed at Kensington.

Motorised vehicles had been gradually replacing horse-drawn wagons. Bradley told the inquiry this was not always welcomed by men living and working on stations. With so little freedom, slipping out for a swift pint when things were quiet on watch was a valued privilege. In the two minutes it took to harness the horses, a colleague could nip out and fetch a fellow firefighter back from the pub.

When Middlebrook reported in May 1920, he made a case for parity with police pay. Firemen, he concluded, “should be treated more or less equal with the police and more generously than other municipal employees”, as their work was “of a more arduous nature”.

REPLACEMENT OF CONTINUOUS DUTY BY THE TWO-PLATFORM SYSTEM PROVIDED 800 JOBS

Raising pay and standardising working conditions would help brigades “attract as well as retain a good type of man”.

The recommendations read like a draft checklist for a new fire union keen to spread its reach: free quarters or an allowance in lieu, free uniforms, pensions more in line with police, full sick pay for at least three months.

Middlebrook’s backing for compulsory retirement at 55 will resonate with many firefighters today. The recommendations were not, however, legally binding. There were many gains – but local authorities could pick and choose.

Post-war austerity was beginning to bite deep. In 1921 London firemen had their wages cut by 2.5 per cent for 12 months. London County Council wanted to slash pay by 5 per cent, but agreed to halve that to preserve pay parity with police.

20% PAY CUT DEMAND

The LCC came back with a vengeance two years later and demanded a 20 per cent cut. The FTU did not meekly accept that selective belt-tightening was necessary. After all, the police were not being asked to take a similar hit.

The union took its case to an industrial court – and won. It was deemed far too soon to break with police pay parity. But it was harder to fight similar cuts imposed outside London.

Under Bradley, the FTU notched up early successes, while the positive checklist from the Middlebrook inquiry gave morale boosting gains and, in London, brought an end to tied housing or living on the station.

The union would not be taking in huge numbers of new recruits anytime soon – although the replacement of continuous duty in London by the two-platoon system would provide 800 jobs for demobbed soldiers.

The real challenge in the immediate post-war years was to consolidate early gains, build strength in London and to carry on representing rank and file firefighters.

It would take another world war for the union to boost membership signifi­cantly and to become a key player in shaping the future of the fire service.

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