On This Day: The London Women Transport Workers Strike, 16th August 1918

1915 Female bus conductor

One of the first female London bus conductors (Source: Daily Mirror, 28/10/1915)

In August 1918, female tram conductors in Willesden started a wildcat strike which quickly spread around the country and to other sectors of public transport. Initially demanding the same war bonus that had been given to men, their demands morphed into equal pay, over 40 years before the Equal Pay Act.

During the First World War, women took over many of the jobs that had previously been done by men. Public transport was one area where female employees became key. By the end of the war, the London General Omnibus Company employed 3500 women, and thousands more were employed by other bus and train operators in London as well as on the Underground. Lots of women joined unions, but the unions were more interested in protecting the long-term job security of men rather than the employment rights of women. The unions wanted to make sure that men could return to their pre-war jobs with the same working conditions when the war finished, so they didn’t want women to get too comfortable. In addition, both unions and management refused to entertain the idea of equal pay, arguing that the work that women did was not worth the same as men’s.

In mid-1918, male workers were given a 5 shilling a week wartime bonus to help cope with the increased cost of living. Women were not given this bonus, and some workers in London were not willing to accept this. On the 16th of August, a meeting of women at Willesden bus garage decided to go on strike the following day, without informing their bosses or unions.

The next morning, they were quickly joined by women at the Hackney, Holloway, Archway and Acton depots and garages, and the strike continued to spread throughout the day. At first the women demanded the same 5 shilling per week bonus as men, but their demands soon escalated to equal pay, and they adopted the slogan ‘Same Work- Same Pay.’

1918 Female strikers

Images of the strike from the Daily Mirror (20/08/1918).

By the 23rd of August, female bus and tram workers around the country had joined the strike, including in Bath, Bristol, Birmingham, Brighton, and Weston-super-mare. Some women working on the London Underground also joined the strike- it mainly affected the Bakerloo Line. It is estimated 18000 out of a total 27000 women working in the public transport industry participated.

The strikers held a series of mass meetings at the Ring, on Blackfriars Road in Southwark. It was a boxing arena that had been destroyed by aerial bombing. Many women brought their children and picnics with them. The strike was settled on the 25th of August after a contentious meeting at the Ring- many women did not want to go back to work. The tube workers didn’t go back to work until the 28th. The women won the 5 shilling bonus, but not equal pay.

The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970 but even now, almost a hundred years after the women transport workers’ strike, women are not paid the same as men for the same jobs. London’s female public transport workers were some of the first to make a demand that is still yet to be fully realised. Without the aid of the experienced unions, the women were able to win the same bonus as men, if not the same wage. Little is known about how the women organised, which is a shame, although it might make a very nice research project!

Sources and Further Reading

Stuart. “London Buses in Wartime.” Great War London. Last modified 30th December 2014, accessed 15th June 2016. Available at  https://greatwarlondon.wordpress.com/2014/12/30/london-buses-at-war-1914-1918/

View from the Mirror. “From Prayer to Palestra: The Ring at Blackfriars.” View from the Mirror: A Cabbie’s London. Last modified 4th February 2013, accessed 20th June 2016. Available at https://blackcablondon.net/2013/02/04/from-prayer-to-palestra-the-ring-at-blackfriars/

Walker, Michael. “London Women Tram Workers – Equal Pay Strike 1918.” Hayes People’s History. Last modified 13th February 2007, accessed 15th June 2016. Available at http://ourhistory-hayes.blogspot.co.uk/2007/02/women-tramworkers-equal-pay-strike-1918.html

Weller, Ken. “The London Transport Women Workers Strike 1918.” libcom.org. Last modified 19th December 2012, accessed 15th June 2016. Available at  https://libcom.org/history/london-transport-women-workers-strike-1918

Welsh, Dave. “The 90th anniversary of the Equal Pay strike on the London Underground.” Campaign Against Tube Privatisation- History. No date, accessed 15th June 2016. Available at  http://www.catp.info/CATP/History.html

Turbulent Londoners: Ada Salter, 1866-1942

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. My next Turbulent Londoner is Ada Salter, a social reformer, environmentalist, and pacifist, who became the first female mayor in London.

Ada Salter

Ada Salter, 1866-1942 (Photo: Wikipedia).

Ada Salter was a strong-willed and radical woman, who dedicated her life to the people of Bermondsey. Originally moving there as a charity worker, she became a local councillor and eventually mayor, the first in London (Daisy Parsons became Mayor of West Ham in 1936, 14 years after Ada). Born Ada Brown on the 20th of July 1866 in Raunds, Northamptonshire, Ada was an active Methodist and member of the radical wing of the Liberal Party from an early age. In 1896, aged 30, she moved to London to work as a ‘Sister of the People’ in the St. Pancras slums. The following year she moved to the Bermondsey Settlement, and joined the community which she would spend the rest of her life fighting for.

The Settlement movement started in the 1880s, and encouraged the rich and poor to live closely together in interdependent communities. Volunteers lived in the Settlements and shared knowledge and culture with their low income neighbours, as well as alleviating poverty. The Bermondsey Settlement was founded in 1892, and stayed open until 1967. Ada worked with young women, and was admired for her ability to get through to them. Whilst at the Settlement Ada met Dr. Alfred Salter, whom she persuaded to convert to Christianity and join the Liberal Party (he was previously a socialist). They were married on the 22nd of August 1900.

After the Salters’ marriage Ada wanted to stay in Bermondsey, so Alfred set up a GP practice in Jamaica Road, whilst Ada continued to work at the Settlement. In 1902 the couples’ only child, Ada Joyce, was born. Four years later Ada left the Liberal Party because they reneged on their promise to grant women the vote. She joined the International Labour Party (ILP) and co-founded the Women’s Labour League (WLL). The ILP was the best party in regards to womens’ rights, and they wanted to stand female candidates at the next local council elections, including Ada. As a Liberal Councillor for the London County Council, Ada’s move must have put her husband in an awkward position. He supported her, however, and eventually joined her, founding a Bermonsdey branch of the ILP in 1908.

Alfred and Joyce Salter

Alfred Salter, Ada’s husband, and their daughter, Ada Joyce (Photo: Spartacus Educational).

In November 1909, Ada was elected the first female and first Labour councillor in Bermondsey. Tragedy struck the following year when Ada Joyce was killed by scarlet fever in one the periodic epidemics that swept through the overcrowded community. The Salters’ had made the conscious decision not to send their daughter away from Bermondsey to protect her health. Joyce attended the local Keeton’s Road School, and caught scarlet fever 3 times in her 8-year life. It was an admirable decision to keep their entire family within Bermondsey, but the guilt after Joyce’s death must have been overwhelming.

Devastated, Ada threw herself into her political and charity work. She started to recruit local female factory workers into the National Federation of Women Workers. At first there was little response, but in August 1911, 14000 women struck for, and won, better working conditions. Ada was hailed as the inspiration of the ‘Bermondsey Uprising,’ although in fact she was only one contributing factor. She continued to support worker’s disputes, setting up food relief points during strikes. Ada became National Treasurer of the WLL, and President in 1914. The WLL wasn’t affiliated to any specific suffrage movement, but Ada supported the non-violent Women’s Freedom League (she was friends with the President, Charlotte Despard). The Salters had become Quakers in the early 1900s, which had solidified Ada’s commitment to non-violence.

After the start of the First World War the Salters’ dedicated themselves to campaigning against it. Ada was a founding member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and they both worked for the Non-Conscription League from 1916. They used their house in Kent to help conscientious objectors recover from harsh treatment in prison. In 1915 the government prevented Ada from attending the Hague Peace Conference, but she did make it to Bern, Switzerland to represent the ILP at a conference of socialist women opposed to the war. Vocally opposing the war was an incredibly brave stance to take, and the Salters were threatened and abused for their views.

Whilst in the WLL Ada conducted research into social housing; she advocated replacing slums with council houses designed to suit the needs of working class women. She also believed that fresh air and nature helped physically, mentally, and morally, so advocated urban gardening and pioneered organised campaigning against air pollution in London. In 1919 Ada was re-elected to Bermondsey Council, and in 1920 she launched the Beautification Committee, which went on to plant 9000 trees and 60000 plants.

In 1922 Ada was made Mayor, which gave her the power to launch a housing campaign. She demolished slums, and beautified those that couldn’t be knocked down with window boxes, trees and flowers. Also believing in the ‘beautification’ of the individual, Ada organised cultural and sporting events across the borough. She finally managed to get her perfect council housing built in Wilson Grove, small cottages inspired by the Garden City movement. They were too low density to really be a solution to housing problems in London, but the small estate was successful, and still stands today.

Ada Salter stature

A statue of Ada Salter has stood next to the Thames in Bermondsey since 2014 (Photo: SE16.com)

Despite the risks, the Salters’ refused to leave Bermondsey at the outbreak of  the Second World War. Their house was bombed in 1942, and Ada died on the 4th of December 1942. Ada Salter was a brave and determined woman who dedicated most of her life to the community of Bermondsey. She didn’t compromise, even refusing to wear the mayoral chain because it contradicted her Quaker beliefs. She is an important figure in local London history, and her perspectives on social housing are still relevant today, as the fight for affordable housing in the capital increases in intensity.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Brown, Matthew: “ILP@120: Ada Salter- Sister of the People,” Independent Labour Publications. Last modified 11th November 2013, accessed 22nd July 2016. Available at  http://www.independentlabour.org.uk/main/2013/11/11/ilp120-ada-salter-%E2%80%93-sister-of-the-people/

Oldfield, Sybil. “Salter, Ada (1866-1942),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 2004, accessed 22nd July 2016. Available at http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy01.rhul.ac.uk/view/article/38531 (subscription required for access)

Quakers in the World. “Quakers in Action: Ada Salter.” No date, accessed 22nd July 2016. Available at http://www.quakersintheworld.org/quakers-in-action/297

Simkin, John. “Ada Salter,” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 22nd July 2016. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/PRsalterAD.htm

Wikipedia. “Ada Salter.” Last modified 2nd March, 2016, accessed 21st July 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_Salter

Wikipedia. “Bermondsey Settlement.” Last modified 24th April 2015, accessed 21st July 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bermondsey_Settlement

Wikipedia. “Settlement Movement.” Last modified 27th April 2016, accessed 21st July 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Settlement_movement


Turbulent Londoners: Charlotte Despard, 1844-1939

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The second Londoner to be profiled is Charlotte Despard, an inspirational pacifist, feminist and socialist campaigner.

 A portrait of Charlotte Despard by Mary Edis, exh. 1916 (Source:http://www.oxforddnb.com/images/article-imgs/37/37356_1_200px.jpg)

A portrait of Charlotte Despard by Mary Edis, exh. 1916 (Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

Charlotte Despard was a prominent feminist and social campaigner in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who fought for many causes during her long life. Born into a wealthy French family in Kent in 1844, she married in 1870. She was brought up as a young Victorian lady should be, and frequently railed against her lack of a proper education. After her husband died in 1890, she became a dedicated and inspiring campaigner, although she was well known for her simple black clothing for the rest of her life.

Despard organised and funded a health clinic, a soup kitchen for the unemployed and youth and working men’s clubs in the slum called Nine Elms in Battersea, London. Not content with mere philanthropy, she actually moved into the area, living amongst those she worked so hard to help. In 1894 she became a Poor Law Guardian in Lambeth, a job at which she excelled, using her position to care for the most vulnerable ‘paupers’.

Politically, Despard was an active supporter of the Social Democratic Party and the Independent Labour Party, running in the 1918 general election as a pacifist Labour candidate for Battersea. By the time the Women’s Social and Political Union moved to London in 1906, she was a well-known progressive speaker, and an obvious choice for an ally. She became the WSPU’s honorary secretary, and was imprisoned twice in 1907 for her actions as a suffragette, at the age of 63. However, later that year the Suffragette movement split, and Despard became President of the Women’s Freedom League, which unlike the WSPU was democratically organised and advocated a campaign of passive resistance.

Despard addressing an anti-fascist rally in the 1930's, when she was in her nineties (Source:http://www.historytoday.com/sites/default/files/despard1.jpg)

Despard addressing an anti-fascist rally in the 1930’s, when she was in her nineties (Source: History Today)

Despard was a pacifist, opposing the Boer War and World War One, despite her brother, Sir John French, being the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France until 1915. The two remained close throughout the First World War, until Charlotte declared her support of Irish home rule and later independence. As the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Sir John French was tasked with trying to supress the very people she supported, and their previously close relationship suffered badly. In 1921 she moved to Ireland, where she continued to campaign for civil rights and the relief of poverty and distress. Despite her advanced years, she was classed as a dangerous subversive under the Irish Free State’s 1927 Public Safety Act. In 1933 her house in Dublin was attacked by an anti-communist mob.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Despard was also active in promoting a variety of other causes, including Save the Children, the Indian independence movement, theosophy, and the London Vegetarian Society. She died after a fall at the age of 95, but left behind an enduring legacy. Charlotte Despard was a confident, strong-willed, independent woman, who frequently defied convention and suffered hardship to fight for what she believed in. She is an inspiration.


History Today. http://www.historytoday.com/sites/default/files/despard1.jpg (accessed 12/11/14).

Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars: A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War. London: Pan Books, 2011.

Mulvihill, Margaret. ‘Despard, Charlotte (1844–1939)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2014 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37356, accessed 12 Nov 2014.

Open University, The. ‘Charlotte Despard.’ Making Britain (no date) http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/makingbritain/content/charlotte-despard (accessed 12/11/14).

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (no date) http://www.oxforddnb.com/images/article-imgs/37/37356_1_200px.jpg (accessed 12/11/14).