2019 02 – Popular Protests in 1950s Belfast

The Belfast Gilets Jaunes Of 1950

Wilson John Haire

In the December/January issue of Labour Affairs Froggy on the Gilets Jaunes [Yellow Jackets] of France explains to us what it all means and makes some good observations:

`Being  the environmentally conscious tends also to be part of moral superiority, as the gilet juane at the beginning of the movement said:’

“The elites worry about the end of the world, we worry about the end of the month.”

This moral superiority he also mentions when it comes to the overdone  women’s rights movement and never-ending gay rights.  What about the rest of us?

The Harland & Wolff  Belfast shipyard apprentice’s strike in 1950 for a pay rise also had a Gilet Juanes beginning about it. It came out of nowhere. Nothing was planned beforehand. It started with about 20 apprentice plumbers invading the woodworking shop (a large former aircraft factory) and with them walking down the rows of benches telling us, the woodworking apprentices, to join them. We didn’t move so they said they would come back tomorrow when we had thought about how little we were being paid. They did, and we joined them in our hundreds. From there it was invading the other workshops like the sheetmetal, blacksmiths, copper and iron foundries, paint shops, rope shops, electrical shops, the brass works and every other one we came across.

The shipyard was at the time the biggest in the world and occupied a man-made Queens Island. It had its own two-bus service and therefore we had quite a march to reach all the workshops and ships, which we boarded, to bring out the apprentices there plus the slipways with their half-finished ships, and huge plating sheds.

The Engine Works was separate with its locked gates and heavy security. That had something to do with the development of new ship’s engines. WW2 had hardly ended when they were on about Soviet spies coming in on the Soviet grain ships to the Belfast docks which had  women officers and with the deck tannoy playing Tchaikovsky or Rimsky Korsakov. The ship’s  engines were constructed at the Engine Works and also tested there. That caused a tremor on the road outside as if an earthquake was imminent.

We needed cunning to get through those gates. Most of us kept out of sight of the gates waiting for them to open to let a lorry in or out. When a lorry did appear and the gates were opened we charged, knocking back the security men and flinging open the gates and holding them to let in the other apprentices which must have numbered  to near one thousand by now. We had previously boarded a naval ship which had an armed guard with fixed bayonets but they were just brushed aside.

In the engine room we found some engineering apprentices and brought them out.

During this campaign we only came across two apprentices reluctant to join us. One refused on religious grounds but was persuaded by a foreman to join us. The other one in the Engine Works was persuaded to go when one of the apprentices asked:

`Where’s his coat, where’s his lunchbox.’

When his engineering tutor got them for him and held his coat for him to put on, and handed him his lunchbox, he joined us and began chanting with the rest of us. A few of the apprentices began chanting: `Good old Joe Stalin!’  When one religious apprentice tried to stop this he was told to shut up and read his bible.

We then assembled outside the main offices and chanted for the head of  Harland and Wolff to appear. Sir Frederick Rebbeck did eventually come out, escorted by two harbour policemen. He dismissed the policemen and launched into us with the words:

`You’re no good to me and you’re no good to yourselves. Get back to work.’

An apprentice approached him saying: `See these dungarees , I’m wearing, mister? They cost as much as I earn a week.’ The lad was from the woodworking  shop and I saw him as usually timid. He faced down Rebbeck and  Rebbeck said something like: `You don’t say!’ And walked away.

We decided to continue and march to the centre of Belfast. There had been a committee set up but it was shouted down. An apprentice who was in the union tried to make it a union affair by asking us to join the union. As apprentices we didn’t have to be in the union until we came out of our time. (finished the apprenticeship).

Our fathers were in unions. We didn’t want unions or committees or even leaders.

We were organically one,  like ants I suppose. We were all thinking the same: `Get all the apprentices out.’

In Central Belfast we hung around discussing what to do next. Belfast then had a lot of heavy engineering works with lots of apprentices. In the end these factories hearing of our strike sent delegations to support us. Someone tried to set up a public meeting with a speaker who was a member of the Young Workers’ League (the youth section of the CPNI) but he too was shouted down with the apprentices  turning their backs on the speaker, who was standing on a pair of wooden steps.

The uniformed RUC were nowhere to be seen. When passing Musgrave Barrack we saw the huge wooden doors open and some of them going in without even glancing at us. The barracks had a permanent Bren gun carrier in its forecourt.

It was a notorious place for roughing up people, battering drunks they had picked up.

If you passed it on a Saturday night you sometimes heard screaming as if from women but it was from men.

We just went home to fathers who shouted and bawled about us maybe losing our apprenticeships. These men were union members themselves and most of them worked in the shipyard. It was a difficult two weeks being on strike at home. We only returned to work when the Belfast Telegraph and the radio announced

Harland & Wolff had agreed to give us a rise of £1 a week and adding that it had been a communist-inspired strike. The Young Worker’s League got a few new members after that statement. The idea was if the communists could organise this then they had to be joined. But it was all nonsense. The media also looked for the leaders of this strike but found none. We all went back to work and the strike was never mentioned again. The timid lad who confronted Sir Frederick Rebbeck became timid again.

So a first-year apprentice’s  wage went up from £1.4.6 to £2.4.6 a week with the same pound added to 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th year apprentices. But your father still had to keep you until you were 21 out of his wages.  You were never paid a living wage as an apprentice. It was cheap labour. By the age of 18, I was constructing cabins out of marine plywood in a gang of apprentices on board cargo ships, passenger liners, whaling ships and warships.  We loved it all with only one adult non-patriarchal chargehand. Then we installed the furniture, screwing it to the bulkheads. We were equal to our fathers now.

But when you were aged 14 he bought you your first suit with shirt and tie.  He would bring you along to a tailors like Spackman of High Street and he would decide what colour and type of suit you would be wearing at weekends only, except for funerals and weddings.

`When I was a lad I went with my dad to Spackman’s.

Now I’m a dad and I go with my lad to Spackman’s.’

That’s what it said in Spackman’s window. And that’s where my grandfather had bought my father as a 14-year-old, his first suit.

That was the kind of patriarchal society we lived in and the one in which we had, as teenagers, to take our courage in two hands and strike. It was also the patriarchal society in which the patriarch had to provide  for wife and children, everything from groceries, clothing, shoes, rent, bus fares, and medical bills (before the NHS) from a GP. His fee was equal to a week’s rent. At hospitals, when asked to pay for treatment, and you didn’t happen to have the equivalent of 3 week’s wages you were asked to put something in the poor box by the almoner. A humiliating experience for the box was in full view of everyone coming and going.

So pity the poor patriarch with a son on strike and missing £1.4.6 a week in income and having to lock up the week’s food from an ever hungry, and growing lad, hanging around at home and asking for his half-crown pocket money.