09, War and the people

It is not for me to stress the war hysteria, jingo patriotism that was generated, encouraged and gradually grew into a frenzy. All industries except war industries were depleted of workers, prices rose, wages rose slowly, the unemployed army had gone into the fighting army. The hotels were glad to take anyone into slavery, so in the catering trade entered men and women refugees, too old for the army, as cooks, chambermaids etc. Some had never seen the inside of a kitchen before, but the wages were good and everybody was happy.

Realising that this war had given the workers better conditions for a short while (and saved capitalism) the workers would not tolerate anybody opposing the war or asking for peace. Harmless German shopkeepers had their shops wrecked, their goods thrown into the street, their homes ruined, and endured personal injury, all in the cause of smashing Prussian militarism. For the first time in my life I was ashamed of my class. But I was to witness a scene later that made me equally sick to look on. We had marched from Old Ford with Sylvia Plankhurst and about three or four hundred women to Trafalgar Square to hold a peace meeting. The meeting had barely started when some colonials got on the plinth, tore the handbags from the women and emptied them among the crowd below, who cheered and laughed. The women’s hats and other personal property went the same way. When protests were made to the police standing behind the crowd, they laughed and said they had no orders to interfere. I was helpless with a few others to stop this disgraceful scene.

For the first year or two of the world war the revolutionary spirit was kept alive in several parts of London by a small band of Anarchists and Socialists. My old Anarchist comrade Fotner and I were having a meeting in Deptford Broadway. Fotner only asked the crowd what they would gain by this bloodbath. The was all. They charged the platform, knocked Fotner down, smashed the platform, and he and I lay n the road helpless, covered in blood. The trade union movement in Britain had passed resolutions never to support capitalist wars. They conveniently forgot all that. The so-called Second (Socialist) International had said that there was only one war, the class war, which they would support, but fell at once like a house on sand by supporting the various capitalist rulers in the war.

The powers-that-be tried all they knew to get us. In Southwark I was even framed on a charge of signalling to the enemy! That having failed, I was brought in under the age limit of the Conscription Act.

After the jubilation of ‘peace’ came the aftermath of war. Ex-servicemen injured in it were given miserable pensions. Those fit for work who could not get it were given 29/- (£1.45) per man unemployment benefit. Slowly this came down, wages came down, workers were discharged in thousands. Soon the army of victory had returned once again to its old conditions, an unemployed army, but this army was now amounting to such enormous figures as had never been seen in Britain before.

What of the catering trade? No longer was there a shortage of skilled staff. All the old war-time staff with their large wages had vanished. There was now no class-conscious movement of catering workers in existence. Managers were now quite happy with plenty of thousands of unemployed beating each other down, so wages came down with a run, hours increased, conditions went from bad to worse. The hotel agent did a roaring trade plundering unemployed, and there was no opposition. The white-slave conditions of prior to 1911-12 were returning worse than ever. All the work of the Syndicate was dead. There was altogether a different personnel in the catering trade now, and it would take years of hard spade-work, plenty of persecutions and victimisation, to rebuild. We tried to get into touch with several unemployed cooks, waiters, etc. At last we made contact with a Tom Cann. I was working at this time in a Government luncheon club. A meeting was arranged, and Tom and his friends, being in the majority, decided to call their new union the British and Allied Catering Union.

A great powerful teashop firm had sprung up in a few years all over London. Tom Cann as the secretary decided along with the executive committee to call a mass meeting of the teashop waitresses. One must admit that these girls were simply slaves, completely under the domination of managers and directors. The conditions were so like the old slave days that it was no wonder that Tom Cann decided to attack this firm when strong enough. Having built up a great membership, a members’ meeting was called at a hall in the London Road, S.E., where a new committee was elected. All branches of catering staff had their representatives on this committee. I was to represent the kitchen. The committee consisted of twelve.

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