The case of the Jolly George in 1920 shows that workers in Britain had an instinctive solidarity with the Russian working class, argues Kate Connelly
At 1pm on 10 May 1920, dockers in East London risked their livelihoods by refusing to load munitions on to a ship called the Jolly George, which was bound for Poland. They took this action because they knew the munitions were going to be used against Bolshevik Russia.
This was the most high-profile act of solidarity in a wider working-class movement that stopped the British government from assisting in military intervention aiming to crush revolutionary Russia. Today it serves as a reminder and example of the power of working-class internationalism.
In 1970, the USSR produced a commemorative postal stamp of the event. It was dominated by a portrait of Harry Pollitt, the former general secretary of the British Communist Party, in the background is the Jolly George and a man (presumably the young Pollitt) passionately gesticulating as he speaks to a crowd of dock workers.
Writing in a country where every single stamp has the queen’s head on it, I think the 1970 Harry Pollitt stamp is pretty good. But it doesn’t exactly depict what happened.
Harry Pollitt played an important role, as we will see, but he had been sacked from his job on the docks before the Jolly George action. And Harry Pollitt’s account attributed the strike to the work of a socialist group dominated by former suffragettes in East London. Pollitt would almost certainly have agreed that the agitator represented on the dockside should have been a woman called Melvina Walker.
The real story of the Jolly George tells us about the importance of activism, how to campaign and how to win.
The Bolsheviks, the British government and the working-class
The Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 provided an enormous beacon of hope to workers across the world. Three years into a bloody war of attrition, seemingly with no end, workers and peasants in Russia overthrew first the Tsar, the most reactionary despot in Europe, and then the replacement warmongering Provisional Government. Russia’s role in the war was now at an end and they began to try to build a socialist society.
The lesson was clear: if workers wanted change, they had to take things into their own hands. This is exactly what started to happen. In the year following the Russian Revolution, when Britain was still at war, it ‘lost’ nearly 6 million days through strike action – including strikes by women workers for equal pay and a police strike. The war ended with a revolution in Germany. By 1919, there was a semi-revolutionary situation in Britain with mutinies in the armed forces and a wave of strike action across the country.
The British ruling class was terrified that they would suffer the fate of the Russian government. A month before the end of the war, Lord Burnham told the head of Special Branch: ‘We cannot hope to escape some sort of revolution . . . and there will be no passionate resistance from anybody.’
The British government, formerly allied with the arch-reactionary Tsar in the war, was determined to crush the Bolshevik revolution, which had jeopardised its war plans and provided inspiration to workers in Britain.
In 1918, British troops, who were desperate for the war to end, found that they were being redeployed to fight against the Bolsheviks in Russia – something that accounts for much of the military unrest in 1919.
By the beginning of 1920, however, it was clear the British government had overreached itself. Prime Minister Lloyd George told his Cabinet: ‘There can be no question of making active war on the Bolsheviks, for the reason we have neither the men, the money, nor the credit and public opinion is altogether opposed to such a course’.
Not active war – an interesting choice of words. The British government looked instead to support other military interventions against Russia. In the spring of 1920, Polish forces made significant gains in their attack on Russia, taking the city of Kiev in Ukraine. Rumours abounded that they were being armed by the British.
On 6 May 1920 the leader of the House of Commons, Bonar Law, told Parliament that Britain had provided no support to Poland. Four days later, cargo arrived on East London’s East India Dock labelled ‘OHMS [On His Majesty’s Service] Munitions for Poland’.
From East London suffragettes to communists
Harry Pollitt later wrote that ‘The strike of the Jolly George was the result of two years’ tremendously hard and unremitting work on the part of a devoted band of comrades in East London.’
Who were these East London comrades?
One of the East London organisations inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution was a group of working-class suffragettes founded by Sylvia Pankhurst in 1912. That was the year of a dock strike which particularly affected East London where the docks were major employers.
Some of the women who were first involved with the East London suffragettes had already gained campaigning experience in the dock strike. One of them was Melvina Walker, a former lady’s maid brimming with stories about how the elites really behaved, and the wife of a striking docker. She was also a brilliant public speaker, as her friend Sylvia Pankhurst later recalled:
'For a long period she was one of the most popular open air speakers in any movement in London. I could imagine her on the barricades, waving the bonnet rouge, and urging on the fighters with impassioned cries.'
With the outbreak of the First World War, some of the East London suffragettes were initially persuaded by the pro-war propaganda and others wanted to believe it would be the short, victorious, over-by-Christmas war they were promised because their husbands and sons had signed up.
From the very start, Melvina Walker was one of those who refused to back the war, understanding that workers in Britain did not have a common interest with their ruling class but instead shared the same interests as workers in Germany. Walker made this point by calling back to the experience of the 1912 dock strike:
'British transport workers – trade union men – are called upon to shoot down German transport workers, and it is not so very long ago, in the time of our industrial war – I mean the great Dock Strike – when we were fighting the large ship owners, we received with joy the news that these same men had sent us £5,000 to help us in our fight for better conditions. We said we would never forget their kindness[.]'
The experience of the war, in which the poor suffered disproportionately from the pressure to enlist as well as from price rises and job losses, soon allowed the East London suffragettes to become an explicitly anti-war organisation. They supported the Bolshevik Revolution as a blow against war and because the soviets placed democratic decisions in the hands of ordinary people.
In 1918, the East London suffragettes called themselves the Workers’ Socialist Federation (WSF) and established the People’s Russian Information Bureau, which published literature about what was really happening in Russia to counter the government’s demonization of the Bolsheviks. One of their most important pamphlets was To the Toiling Masses by Lenin, Trotsky and Chicherin, which called for workers outside Russia to act in solidarity with the Bolsheviks. It was illegal to print this publication in Britain, and Special Branch went to considerable efforts to find out where it was coming from.
In January 1919, the WSF joined with the British Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party and the International Workers of the World to found the ‘Hands Off Russia’ campaign, to try to stop military intervention.
The importance of the East London docks
The WSF were well-placed to campaign against military intervention since the East London docks were an important location from which to load military cargo bound for Eastern Europe.
In 1919, the boilermarker Harry Pollitt moved to East London and got a job on the docks. Like many working people he was inspired by what was happening in Russia: ‘I pounced on everything that dealt with the Russian Revolution, and the knowledge that workers like me and all those around me had won power, had defeated the boss class, kept me in a growing state of enthusiasm.’
He worked with the WSF – ‘the most self-sacrificing and hard-working comrades it has been my fortune to come into contact with’ – and began distributing Hands Off Russia literature on the docks. He hid copies of the banned To the Toiling Masses inside his mattress – much to the surprise of his landlady who observed that his mattress kept changing size and didn’t look very comfortable!
The WSF held Saturday night and Sunday morning meetings at the dock gates, urging workers not to load munitions to Poland: ‘there could not have been a place in Poplar where the cry of “Hands Off Russia!” had not been heard.’ Pollitt recalled that one of the hardest workers was Melvina Walker who was organising among dockers’ wives:
'I remember how indefatigably the late comrade, Mrs. Walker of Poplar, used to work for the “Hands Off Russia” movement. She toiled like a Trojan. If on a shopping morning you went down to Chrisp Street, Poplar, you could rely upon seeing Mrs. Walker talking to groups of women, telling them about Russia, how we must help them, and asking them to tell their husbands “to keep their eyes skinned to see that no munitions went to help those who were trying to crush the Russian Revolution.”'
Then it was confirmed: dockers were told to load two barges with munitions for Poland. Pollitt refused and was sacked on the spot. He was bitterly disappointed that after all the campaigning his fellow workers did not strike. The bosses were paying them extra to load the munitions.
On Sunday morning, Pollitt went down to confront his old work mates; he gave everyone a copy of To the Toiling Masses. It was snowing that morning and the men were sent home, but they were still paid double time for the whole day – unheard of ‘generosity’ from the bosses, but it showed how desperate they were to keep the workers onside.
All the campaigners were dejected at the WSF meeting that night. But one of Pollitt’s old workmates turned up and told him ‘What are you worrying about, Harry? It’ll all come right in the end.’ A few weeks later, they heard the news that the barges’ towing rope had snapped and they had sunk in the middle of the North Sea.
Another boat bound for Poland arrived in the East India Dock. ‘Mrs. Walker worked herself to a standstill.’ Again, it was loaded and set sail down the Thames. Then, two socialist firefighters got on board and called a meeting of the crew to tell them where the munitions were going. Confronted by a furious captain, they were still arguing when they were rammed by another ship. That ended the argument – the ship was in no condition to sail now.
What changed with the Jolly George
On 10 May 1920, dockers in the East India Dock began to load the Jolly George. When they realised the cargo was more munitions bound for Poland they stopped work. The coal heavers, who fuelled the ship, also joined the strike: they realised that if the ship was coaled it could be sailed to another dock and loaded there.
The dockers went to their union office and got an assurance from their leaders that the union would back them. On 15 May, the dockers unloaded the ship. On one of the cases was a ‘Hands Off Russia’ sticker, a testament to all that campaigning. Pollitt later wrote about that sticker: ‘It was only small, but that day it was big enough to be read all over the world.’
By the end of the month, the dockers’ and railway workers’ unions made it policy to refuse to load munitions bound for Russia. The leaders of the dockers’ union made it clear this was because of what happened at the East India Dock:
'the action of the dockers in refusing to load the ‘Jolly George’ is worthy of practical support. We, therefore, instruct our members to refuse to handle any material which is intended to assist Poland against the Russian people.'
On 5 August 1920, the leaders of the Trade Union Congress and the Labour Party established a national Council of Action, which pledged to organise a general strike in the event of Britain taking military action against Russia. This was a significant step: the leaders of Labour and of the trade unions were not sympathetic to the Bolsheviks and had proved themselves in the First World War to be willing to join the national war effort.
Their pro-active, anti-interventionist stance in the summer of 1920 therefore has to be seen in the context of widespread opposition to Britain joining an attack on Russia.
Lloyd George understood this too. Three days after the Council of Action was formed, he met the French government who urged a joint attack on Russia. Lloyd George informed them Britain would not be a part of it, citing ‘the critical state of British public opinion on this question. The working classes were frankly hostile to intervention and this view was shared by Conservative opinion.’ He also informed the French government that Labour and the trade unions would call a general strike if military action were launched.
The power of international solidarity
Acts of international solidarity are powerful because they challenge the divisions that ruling elites attempt to foster between working people.
The spirit of the Jolly George strikers can be seen in the Scottish Rolls-Royce workers in who, in 1974, refused to repair fighter jets for dictator Pinochet’s Chilean Airforce. And the dockers in France and Italy who in 2015 refused to load arms for Saudi Arabia’s appalling attack on Yemen. And when Parliament voted against military action against Syria in 2013 as MP after MP cited, like Lloyd George nearly a hundred years before, the widespread opposition to war that a mass movement had created.
These acts of international solidarity strengthen our side, abroad and at home. This is also the reason that they are so bitterly opposed by the establishment: think, for example, of the persecution of the movement for Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions on Israel. The example of the Jolly George shows how important it is to defend our movements of international solidarity – because it shows we can win.
 Quoted in my Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire (London: Pluto Press, 2013), p.98.
 Quoted in L.J. Macfarlane, ‘Hands off Russia: British Labour and the Russo-Polish War, 1920’, Past & Present, No.38 (December, 1967), p.131.
 Harry Pollitt, Serving My Time: An Apprenticeship to Politics (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1950), p.118.
 E. Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals (London: Virago Limited, 1977), p.524.
 Woman’s Dreadnought, 15 August 1914, p.85.
 Pollitt, Serving My Time, pp.91-2.
 Ibid, p.110.
 Ibid, p.112.
 Ibid, pp.111-112.
 Ibid, p.113.
 Ibid, p.114.
 Ibid, p.117.
 Quoted in The Railway Review, 4 June 1920, p.9.
 Macfarlane, ‘Hands off Russia’, p.134.
Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.
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