The emergence of ‘New Unionism’ in 1889, and the accompanying outburst of strikes across the country, was one of the most extraordinary and significant events in trade union history. Tens of thousands of ‘unskilled’ labourers, men and women, struck work, demanding an immediate improvement in their working conditions. In Bristol, gasworkers were at the helm of this revolt.
Exasperated by the directors of the Bristol United Gas Light Company’s habitual disregard for their employees, early in October 1889 the whole of the workforce engaged in the manufacture of coal gas walked out. This was the first major and successful strike in the gas industry since the creation, in March 1889, of the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers of Great Britain and Ireland.
Violent clashes between police and striking gasworkers and their supporters from local working class communities (referred to as the ‘mob’ by the Company and the Chief Constable) featured in this dispute. However, this was no spasmodic strike. Its origins are complex. Although the 1889 strike did constitute a turning point in the emergence of a labour movement in Bristol, the dramatic moments of working class resistance always have deeper roots. This study provides an extended view from the beginnings of the Bristol gas industry in 1815 up to and including the strike in October 1889.