The Great Unrest - Modelling the 1911 railway strike

Here’s an attempt to re-enact the 1911 railway strike in OO. The strike was an important but sometimes overlooked event in the social history of Britain's railways, and involved some very unusual scenes. The cameos are based on contemporary photos, but transposed to my own Farthing layouts.

1. The strike begins

“The Great Unrest” was a period of labour unrest during the years 1911-1914. 

The period saw more industrial disputes than any before it.


During the years 1911-14 there were 4,229 officially recorded strikes in Britain.


This included Britain's first official national railway strike which took place over three dramatic days from August 17-19, 1911. 

The strike arose from dissatisfaction among railway workers with the lack of progress in the so-called Conciliation Boards that were supposed to negotiate worker’s conditions. 

In June 1911 railway workers in Liverpool joined dock workers and merchant sailors in the Liverpool Transport Strike, demanding shorter hours and better pay.


 Source: Ronramstew on Flickr.

The strikes in Liverpool gradually gained broader support and spread to other towns. With some delay the railway unions decided to back the strikes and expand them. A formal national railway strike was declared on August 17.

The unions sent telegrams to 2,000 railway centers across the country, urging all railway workers to abandon work and go on strike.


According to sources this increased the number of workers on strike to approximately 150-200,000 of the 600,000 railway workers recorded at the time.


Action was most intense on the railways that connected with the North, including the MR, LNWR, NER, GCR and GWR. On the southern railways, few workers got involved in the strike.

2. Bearskins on the line

The railway companies refused to accept the strike and met with the PM Asquith, who guaranteed that they would be able to continue railway operations.


After a failed attempt to negotiate an arrangement with the unions, Home Secretary Churchill approved deployment of 58,000 troops around the country.

The army’s brief was to secure running of the railways and avoid interference or sabotage by the strikers.

Numerous photos from around the country show troops guarding stations, signal boxes, junctions and loco sheds.

This scene was inspired by a photo in “The Sphere” showing troops guarding GWR facilities.

 Many of the deployed troops wore an unusual combination of field uniform and full-dress headgear.


Perhaps an early spin doctor had been at work?


Similar scenes were captured at e.g. LeicesterYork and Clapham Junction.

3. Crossing the picket lines

 Source: Sarah on Flickr

The army was also employed to assist police in escorting horse-drawn cartage.

Photos show horse-drawn wagons lined up in small convoys.


The stable-men were all on strike, so no reins 😏. No, reins are just not practical on my layouts which are constantly set up and dismantled.


With the protection from troops, some goods got through to their destination.


Other cartage vehicles were stopped by striking workers. 


Pictures show confrontations in the streets… 

… as workers sought to halt deliveries and confront strike breakers.

In some cases, wagons were overturned to stop their progress.


The mainstream media were not used to strikes and tended to portray the strikers as vandals. It was vigorously debated whether strikes should be allowed.

4. Impact on passenger operations 


Passenger operations were differently affected across the country. 

In areas with little strike activity, services were maintained to some extent.


Nevertheless, knock-on effects led to delays and cancellations across much the system.


In some areas most of the staff were on strike and trains came to a complete standstill. This scene was inspired by a photo from Manchester which shows passengers walking along the tracks, having left a deserted train and making their way into the station.


The largely unstaffed stations must have been a strange experience.


Without staff, what is a railway?

5. A Siphon Special


With so many men on strike, it became a challenge to secure sufficient stock for passenger services.


Special measures were therefore required. This is an old K’s Siphon that I got off ebay. The doors were cut away…


…and new ones made from laminated styrene.


New doors in place…


… and a few further details added.

This short video clip shows the roof fitted with magnets, thanks to Dave John on RMweb for the idea.


A Siphon Special.

Perhaps you think I'm pulling your leg.

Surely the GWR wouldn't transport passengers... this?

But once again...

Source: Embedded from Getty Images.

...reality beats fiction.

6. Tragedy at Llanelli

Despite the lighter moments this was serious business, and at Llanelli it went all wrong.


In a confrontation between the army and strikers on August 19, two civilians were shot and another four lost their lives in the explosion of a gunpowder van. There's an account of the sad events here.

Source: Embedded from Getty Images.

I didn’t feel like modelling the tragedy itself, so decided to portray a scene from the following day when locals came out to inspect the damaged stock, as seen above.

Several GWR clerestory coaches were damaged in the clashes between army and strikers. Photos show them in 1908-1912 all-brown, so I painted my Slater’s C10 in a simplified version of that livery.

Some distressed glazing was then added.

Photos show police, staff and curious locals inspecting the coaches.

I wonder what they were thinking?

There’s certainly a sombre mood in some of the photos…

…the shattered glazing a reminder…

…that beneath the charm and elegance of the Edwardian era…


…lay great tensions...


... and deep divisions.


By then the strike was over. On August 19 the government mediated a deal between the railway companies and the unions.   The agreement addessed few of the workers' immediate concerns, and some workers felt betrayed by it. The deal did however strengthen the role of the railway unions as legitimate players in negotiating worker's conditions. The unions considered it a win and called off the strike. The years that followed saw more railway strikes, some of them more succesful. But the 1911 strike was the first, and it showed that something was changing.


PS: Please note that this is just a rough account of the strike, and I am not a historian. For further online reading see e.g. David Turner's write-up about the strike, the Brighton ASLEF page, and the Llannelli Rail Strike website.