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Journal 191

1916 – A victory for labour


This paper analyses industrial relations on the Irish railway system between September 1911 and December 1916, spanning the period between the defeat of the railway strike in September 1911 and the government takeover of the Irish railway system in December 1916. The changed situation is encapsulated in the verbatim transcripts of exchanges between Sir William Goulding, chairman of the Great Southern and Western Railway (GS&WR), and delegations of workers, held in September 1911 and December 1916.

September 1911, speaking to strikers seeking to negotiate a return to work:

Checker O Meara: you have a lot of undesirables in at the present time

Goulding There will be a lot more if you don’t take your chance of coming back in soon

December 1916, speaking to a deputation of drivers threatening strike, Goulding said: You had better discuss our offer amongst yourselves and you should get in touch with the Labour party to bring the matter before the house’[1].

Sir William Goulding was the de facto spokesman of the Irish railway companies and the Irish representative on the Council of the Railway Companies Association. Railway companies in Ireland and in Britain generally adopted a policy of non-recognition of unions. During this period, significant disagreements emerged between the Irish companies on this issue. The MGWR, in common with the D&SER and the CB&SCR, favoured a policy of accommodation. The GS&WR was resolutely opposed to any concession and was supported by the Great Northern Railway (Ireland) and the two other Belfast-based companies.

The major union for Irish railwaymen was the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, which had functioned in Ireland since the late 1880s. This union became the National Union of Railwaymen in 1914. Catering for all grades of railway workers, it espoused the philosophy of industrial unionism. Its position was challenged from about 1910 by the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, which put down roots in Dublin and spread rapidly within Ireland. ASLEF was a craft union for footplate grades and organised the strongest among the workforce. If locomotive crews stopped work, trains stopped. The other major national craft unions, such as engineers and boilermakers, organised staff in the maintenance depots and workshops. The only Irish union to have a significant presence was the ITGWU, which organised labourers in the workshops and locomotive sheds.

The 1911 railway strike was in essence a sympathetic strike, which escalated from a strike in a Dublin timber yard. It was comprehensively defeated, with ten per cent of strikers losing their jobs. In December 1916 - faced with a threatened strike by locomotive crews on the GS&WR - the government took over the Irish railway companies as a wartime emergency measure. What happened between these two events was the combination of a number of issues, including industrial relations, union structure, government regulation, wartime labour shortages, and army recruitment. The extent of the defeat of the 1911 strike is one of the reasons that railwaymen took no part in the 1913 lockout. Indeed, MGWR staff at Sligo, Cavan and Navan applied for and got a bonus of up to two weeks pay in February 1914 for ‘extra work in connection with the Dublin strike trouble’[2].

Railway charges were subject to government control and any significant increase was subject to approval by the Railway and Canal Traffic Commissioners. A strike on the issue of union recognition occurred on the British railway system in August 1911. This coincided with an international crisis caused by German naval manoeuvres off Agadir in Morocco. The government promoted a compromise, which fudged the issue of union recognition, but established a system of conciliation boards. As part of the bargain, the British railway companies secured the right to increase rates in order to fund wage increases. Emboldened by their victory in the 1911 strike, the Irish companies refused to become part of the new conciliation board system. As a result, an NUR-sponsored MP had the 1913 Railways Act amended to exclude the Irish companies, thus depriving them of the facility to increase rates.

The 1911 railway strike came at the beginning of a wave of labour militancy, and the railway companies had to deal with the upward pressure on wages which this caused. In 1912, the GS&WR conceded increases to locomotive crew, after some discussion with the men’s representatives. A similar process occurred on the MGWR, with most Board meetings between January and June 1914 receiving a report from the  General Manager on deputations received from various grades and concessions granted[3]. However, in a unique process, the MGWR negotiated an agreement with its locomotive staff in early 1914. This was the first collective agreement relating to an Irish railway company and was signed ‘behalf of the men’ by Michael Tobin, who, coincidentally, was one of the officers of the Dublin branch of ASLEF. This different treatment of locomotive staff reflected their key status, as did the fact that locomotive men on the GS&WR were the first group to receive a wage increase after the defeat of the 1911 strike.

These increases were often the first increases conceded in many years. In April 1913, Watson reported to the GS&WR  Board on a wage claim by tinsmiths and moulders. He stated that tinsmiths had received their last increase in 1893, and that he could not trace the last increase for moulders, but that it was over thirty years before. In June 1913, a letter was received by the GS&WR from the ITGWU, signed by James Larkin, seeking an increase for workshop labourer[4]. This letter does not survive, but it created quite a stir. In June and July, a review of porters’ wages was undertaken, and an across the board increase of two shillings a week was granted to porters and labourers with effect from 1 August 1913, amounting to a 10% increase for the highest-paid category affected, goods porters[5]. These increases, together with the weakened state of the union after the defeat of 1911, secured industrial peace on the railway.

Power relationships changed with the outbreak of war. While British companies were taken under government control on the outbreak of war, the Irish companies were left under the control of their shareholders. War consumes raw materials and labour resources and this leads to inflation. Railway companies had had a preference for recruiting ex-soldiers, many of whom, being in the reserves, were called up in August 1914. As other men enlisted,labour became scarcer, putting upward pressure on wages. The immediate threat was not of strikes, but of people leaving. For example, in Summer 1915, track worker Michael Kennedy resigned from the D&SER ‘owing to low wages on the railway and stated he was taking up a position with Kynoch’s’ (the Arklow explosives manufacturer)[6]. In October 1915, Watson sought GS&WR  Board approval for a two shilling increase for cleaners as ‘we are experiencing great difficulty in getting these lads’[7]. On 2 June 1916, the General Manager of the GS&WR reported to the Board that since the beginning of January, 23 permanent and 28 temporary men in Kingsbridge had resigned[8]. Without striking, railway workers voted with their feet and sought higher paid work in the booming wartime economy.

In April 1915, the Railway Gazette published an estimate of union density based on the NUR Annual Report and Board of Trade returns. It estimated NUR density as 68.7% for England and Wales, 42.7% for Scotland, and 17.7% for Ireland. Despite the weak level of organisation, government regulation of the wartime labour market propelled railway companies towards some form of engagement with unions. A committee on production was set up under the auspices of the Ministry of Munitions and allowed for certain disputes to be put to arbitration. In March 1915, the Board of Trade wrote to the Irish companies advising that the British companies had granted a three shillings a week war bonus to their staff[9]. The British bonuses put pressure on Irish companies to follow suit, and bonuses of between a shilling and 1/6 per week were granted by most companies in February or March 1915. The difference in bonus levels was accentuated by the presence of GWR employees in Rosslare, L&NWR employees in North Wall, and MR employees in Larne. Both worked alongside Irish company staff who received a much smaller war bonus. In their letter of 19 March, the Board of Trade advised the Irish companies that ‘The Union expressly state that they are not at present putting forward any claim for recognition’, but were seeking an allowance for wartime inflation. The company response was that no collective response was possible. The letter stressed the traditional view that companies would receive deputations of their own employees, but added that ‘a number (of companies) cannot see their way to receive a deputation from men not in their own service’.

 Into this mix was added the issue of army recruitment. In Spring 1915, a recruitment campaign was initiated to fill the Kitchener armies. This required the cooperation of employers, and when the Irish railway companies were approached, they asked for the same veto on the enlistment of their staff which the British companies had got in 1914. The recruiting authorities gave the assurance on condition that the companies would cooperate with recruitment efforts. Although seldom remarked on by historians, the issue of recruitment was intertwined with industrial relations, as can be seen from pencilled notes in a GS&WR file.

All right if we can get time can spare with difficulty a good many men

Must be allowed to break 8 hour rule with signalmen on branch lines

No active part on account of action by NUR

Khaki armlet

Can spare no man from Inchicore munitions and engines

Don’t join a committee appoint a rly one.

As described in Journal 161, the response of the GS&WR to the recruiting appeal of 1915 was limited. The company declined to allow military canvassers into the workplaces, except at lunch time, and decided to withhold the names and addresses of wages staff from the recruitment campaign, although it did forward a list of names of clerks. Perhaps the company felt it had done enough already, but this episode shows an intriguing instance of Goulding, a leader of Southern Unionism and a member of the Irish Privy Council, frustrating recruitment efforts among his workforce[10].

Tensions had begun to emerge within the Irish companies on the issue of recognition even before the war broke out. In July 1914, a meeting was held among the Irish companies to discuss recognition. The MGWR was represented by its Chairman and General Manager, who were mandated by the Board that if recognition was not agreed by the other companies, the MGWR ‘holds itself free to act as they thought right’[11]. The Midland were clearly unhappy with the role taken by the GS&WR and by William Goulding in representing the Irish companies. In February 1914, their Board recorded dissent at the practice of returning the outgoing incumbent (Goulding) as the Irish Representative on the council of the Railway Companies Association[12].

On 16 February, the General Managers met to discuss a letter from the NUR seeking discussions on a war bonus. In the course of the meeting, ‘The MGWR and D&SER expressed the view that they had made better settlements with the union than with their men alone…that recognition is about to come sooner or later and that the companies would do better to accept the inevitable’[13]. The other companies did not agree, and the three Belfast companies announced that they were going to introduce bonuses of between one shilling and two shillings per week, well below the bonuses of between two and three shillings a week applicable in Britain.

 On 31 March 1915, the MGWR wrote to a number of Irish companies stating that they had made initial contacts with the union and that the NUR could, through their MPs, facilitate a new legislative deal on Irish railway rates in exchange for a form of recognition. The efforts of the NUR to get a meeting with the Irish companies continued through 1915, without success. On 3 November, the Board of Trade wrote to each of the Irish companies regarding the NUR request for a meeting and expressed the view that ‘ the request of the union was one which deserves favourable consideration, and they would be glad if the Irish railway companies could see their way to accede to it’[14]. Goulding wrote privately to Frederick W. Pim, Chairman of the D&SER, (on Kildare Street Club notepaper), observing that ‘on a former occasion your company together with the MGWR and I think the Bandon company were unable to agree with us on the question of negotiating with the NUR’. He went on to assure Pim that his company, together with the three Belfast companies, ‘are firmly resolved that we will not meet the NUR or hand over our companies to their tender mercies’[15].

In 1916, the spotlight moved to other unions. In the Spring of 1916, the powerful Amalgamated Society of Engineers sought an increase for fitters in Dublin. Although this claim went to the committee on war production, the company prevaricated, and questioned the committee’s jurisdiction. The matter dragged on, and on 21 April, the ASE issued a fortnight’s strike notice. Goulding later stated that 'if the line was to be kept open and the manufacture of shell fuses continued we realised that something would have to be done for this trade and an increase of 3/ per week was granted’[16].

In September ITGWU members employed in Inchicore went on strike, and the Board empowered the Chief Engineer to ‘settle with them on best terms not exceeding three shillings per week’[17]. This settlement could not be contained. and an increase of 1/6 a week was offered to all grades who had not as yet received a war bonus.

In July 1916, the GS&WR General Manager had a confidential meeting with J.H. Thomas, General Secretary of the NUR. The significance of this initiative should not be underestimated, given the anti-union attitude of the GS&WR. For the first time ever, an official of the company had met with an officer of the union. The meeting was in essence ‘talks about talks’, or what would Labour MPs do to support legislation to allow Irish railways to increase charges, if the companies met the union. The initiative produced no results[18]. It was basically what the MGWR had suggested in March of the previous year.

Faced with no progress over fifteen months, in November 1916, a conference of NUR branches was held in Dublin, which passed a motion calling for government control of Irish railways. Later in the month, a meeting of locomotive drivers was held in Thurles, which resolved to seek a meeting with the Board of Trade. Locomotive crews were less vulnerable to company reprisals, as their skill levels meant that, unlike porters, they could not readily be replaced. The Board of Trade ignored this request, and on 8 December, at a series of mass meetings of locomotive drivers and firemen held throughout the country, motions were passed unanimously to give a week’s strike notice.

This was unconnected to either of the unions, and individual notices to cease work were handed in. Nathan Rimmer, the ASRS official, stated that ‘the men were acting independently of the union executive and any action taken must be on their own responsibility’[19]. Although invited to attend the locomotive mens’ meeting in Kilmainham Courthouse, Rimmer did not do so – perhaps wisely given the illegality of the industrial action proposed.

 The serving of strike notice raised the temperature. On 12 December, the Chief Secretary's office rang Kingsbridge to ask how many men would be covered by the bonus, if the government decided to pay it. On 13 December, Goulding met Duke, the Irish Secretary, together with Marwood of the Board of Trade, who asked the company ‘To go back and settle on best terms with the men and we will stand behind you. If the men will not settle on reasonable terms let us know and we will permit no strike’[20]. On 14 December, Goulding and other senior managers met a delegation of drivers, and offered a war bonus increase of two shillings a week.

 On 15 December, the men wrote to the company rejecting the company offer. They used the address of Kilmainham Courthouse, which may be explained by the fact that the proposed strike was unofficial and illegal. The situation on the GS&WR was discussed at the War Cabinet on Saturday 16 December. At its previous days meeting, the War Cabinet had considered a strike by boilermakers in Liverpool. The decision taken illustrates the strategy envisaged by Duke at the meeting with Goulding:

‘not to negotiate until work had been resumed; to issue a warning under the Munitions Act and the Defence of the Realm Act; to follow this by a proclamation and the arrest of three men, in the first instance, against whom evidence of a breach of the law was available; to undertake house-to-house visitation with the object of providing protection for the men who wish to work, and of isolating the strikers; and for the reinforcement of the local police’[21].

Action of such nature could not be contemplated in the Ireland of December 1916. Despite promises of support to Goulding given the previous day – essentially to deal with the strikers in the same manner as the Liverpool boilermakers – the Cabinet discussions took a different turn. The report made by Duke set out how many of the Irish companies were essentially unprofitable, paid very low wages, and that government control was inevitable. At 20:50 that evening, Goulding received a telegram from Sir Albert Stanley of the Board of Trade announcing that they were taking possession of the Irish railway system. The locomens’ tactic had succeeded – they were now bargaining with the Treasury rather than with the companies. The strike was called off and a seven shillings a week war bonus was granted within a number of weeks.

This period witnessed splits within both the employer and union camps. On the management side, the anti-recognition line came under increasing pressure, with the MGWR concluding a collective agreement with its locomotive crews in August 1914, and the period thereafter was marked by growing tensions between the companies. On the union side, the main change was in the growth of ASLEF and the ITGWU at the expense of the NUR. The ITGWU grew among unskilled labourers in the workshops. ASLEF had a presence in Ireland among individual members since the 1890s, and developed a Dublin branch – concentrated on Midland railway staff – from about 1910. The failure of the 1911 strike caused most GS&WR locomotive staff outside Dublin to switch to ASLEF, whose craft union philosophy exerted a strong attraction for locomotive crew[22].

The onset of war changed everything. A shortage of labour exerted upward pressure on railway wages, while rising prices encouraged wage militancy. Despite the presence of voices urging engagement with the unions, the response of the companies was to concentrate their lobbying on trying to get legislation through which would have allowed them to increase rates in order to fund wage increases. Workers were compelled to wait, and this delay caused the strongest group, the drivers, to take matters into their own hands. The advances made by Irish railwaymen were very much on the coat tails of the advances made by their British brethren with their much higher levels of union density.

In the context of the Dublin lockout of 1913, railway workers were, to use Sherlock Holmes’ phrase, ‘the dog that didn’t bark’. This was due not only to the defeat of the 1911 strike, but to the series of concessions made by the larger companies in order to insulate themselves from the labour militancy sweeping Dublin. This can be observed in the wage increases granted between 1912 and 1914 by the GS&WR and the MGWR. This process had begun before the outbreak of war, and was intensified by the industrial relations machinery set up for war purposes, which facilitated skilled engineering workers in pursuing wage claims.

 The majority of railway staff worked in train operations, and lengthy efforts to secure an increased war bonus had brought no results after eighteen months of effort. It was the threat of a strike by GS&WR locomotive staff that broke the deadlock and brought Irish railways under London’s control. This had advantages for both sides, as the shareholders were compensated for the period of control, while the workforce now in effect had the government as their employer.

Government control meant that industrial relations on the Irish Railway system moved to London, where the Irish companies were political minnows.

While the boardroom militants led by the GS&WR outfought the pragmatists of the MGWR and the D&SER, it was a pyrrhic victory. Irish railways’ industrial relations were now managed in a United Kingdom context. In practice, this meant that the government applied British conditions to Ireland. Arguments that British national agreements were not appropriate to Irish conditions fell on deaf ears. This had its culmination in the eight-hour day agreement of 1919, where Ireland was added as an afterthought with the stroke of a pen. The Irish companies protested in vain, but their power was at its nadir, and that of the unions was at its highest. Paradoxically, on this issue, the Irish companies might have got a more sympathetic hearing from the NUR in early 1915.


Appendix 1:

Extract from War Cabinet decisions,

16 December 1916

The Chief Secretary for Ireland explained the present situation … The trouble arose from the inadequate wages paid by the railway companies to large classes of their servants. These wages, before the war, did not exceed, for large sections of the employees, 15s. a week, and even now barely reached in these classes an average of 17s. The railways themselves were of three classes: the Great Southern and Western and the Great Northern, which are on an ordinary footing and pay dividends; the Midland and Great Western, which just pay their way; and the remainder, which are financially waterlogged. Mr. Duke explained that, during his tenure of office, the companies had conceded certain bonuses, but in the case of the poorer companies these bonuses were as low as one or two shillings. …. There are about 22,000 railwaymen in Ireland involved, and the demand is for an additional 10s. a week. If the full demand is conceded, and the Government are prepared to find the money, the annual charge on the Treasury would be about 500,000L.

The President of the Board of Trade agreed that there was a serious danger of English railway employees at various centres taking sympathetic action. …he suggested that it might become necessary for the Government to take over the Irish railways at an early date in order to release Irish railway material, as well as the British material already being set free, for use in France. The Irish railway companies desired either that they might be allowed to raise their rates (which would be resisted by the Nationalist party in Parliament), or that Government would guarantee them against loss in order to enable them to grant additional bonuses.

[1] Irish Railway Record Society Archives, GS&WR Secretary’s File 1069/1 transcript of meeting 27 Sept. 1911. File 2481 transcript of meeting 14 December 1916.

[2] CIÉ archive, Heuston station, MGWR Board minute 1491. Sligo was a port, Cavan and Navan were exchange points between the Midland and the Great Northern Railway.

[3] MGWR Board minutes CIÉ archives, minutes 1473, 1474, 1490, 1504,1507,1538,1556. 1601.

[4] GS&WR secretary’s file 1146 Maunsell to Goulding 19 April 1913. (tinsmiths) Maunsell to Goulding 11 June 1913.

[5] GS&WR traffic and works committee minute 25 July 1913.

[6] Index card civil engineer staff IRRS archives.

[7] IRRS Archives GS&WR Board minute 15 Oct. 1915.

[8] IRRS Archives GS&WR Board minute 7 June 1916.

[9] GS&WR file 2481 Marwood to Irish Railway Clearing House 19 March 1915.

[10] For a full treatment of this episode see P. Rigney ‘Military Service and GS&WR Staff 1914- 1923’. IRRS journal Vol.22 ( 2006) p.531 et seq.

[11] MGWR Board minute 1639.

[12] MGWR Board minute 1520.

[13] GS&WR file 2314 ‘European War’ minute of meeting

[14] GS&WR file 2481 Marwood to Goulding 3 November 1915.

[15] GS&WR file 2481 Goulding to Pim 10 Nov. 1915. The ‘Bandon Company was the Cork Bandon and South Coast railway.

[16] GS&WR file 2481 Goulding to Torrens Midland Railway Belfast 20 October 1916.

[17] GS&WR Board minutes, Inchicore Committee 4 October 1915.

[18] GS&WR file 2481 note of meeting by Neale 14 July 1916.

[19] Conor Mc Cabe ‘The ASRS and the NUR in Ireland 1911- 1923 ‘unpublished PhD thesis, University of Ulster, 2006 p.42.

[20] GS&WR file 2481 note of meeting in Goulding’s hand.

[21]War Cabinet Minutes are available online at

[22] ITGWU NLI branch membership ledgers, ASLEF ‘Interviews, internet and history’ Peter Rigney JIRRS, 179, pp. 159-161.

The remainder of this article appears in IRRS Journal number 191, published October 2016

Copyright © 2017 by Irish Railway Record Society Ltd.
Revised: May 19, 2017 .