Trouble on the Trams

Publication Details
Number: 61
By: Rob Whitfield
Edition: 2024
ISBN: 978-1-911522-73-7
Number of pages: 40
Format: Stapled Pamphlet

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The fight for union rights.

In the early twentieth century, workers could be sacked by their employer with impunity simply because they had joined a trade union.

Such was the situation for those who worked on Bristol’s trams. In Trouble on the Trams, Rob Whitfield recounts how the drivers and conductors fought back when nearly one hundred of their number were dismissed in 1901.

Using contemporary newspaper reports and the company’s own records, he details this dispute and those that were to follow subsequently, until union recognition was finally achieved over three decades later.

A picture of trams on Old Market in Bristol, about 1908Blurb on the back cover


Trouble on the Trams is a remarkable account of the 35-year long, drawn-out struggle from 1901 to 1936 of the Bristol Tram workers to achieve trade union recognition. They faced a private employer, the Bristol Tramways and Carriage Company Ltd., which had secured a monopoly in providing the service in the city since 1887. In contrast, trams in other major cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow were run by the local council.

Rob Whitfield provides a well-researched insight into the harsh working conditions and low pay of the tram workers, which prompted them to form a union. A decisive confrontation took place in 1901. The employer, wealthy and influential, steadfastly opposed any collective action by staff to improve their working conditions. They used every method to prevent it: dismissals, lock outs, legal action and legions of strike breakers.

Despite this, the tram workers never gave up. Bristol Trades Council, together with other unions and the community, supported their many courageous efforts to become unionized. Partial recognition was achieved temporarily in 1917 but removed six years later, reflecting the changing balance of class forces during and after the First World war. It was only in 1936 when Bristol Corporation formed a partnership with the Tram company, that the Transport and General Workers Union finally achieved recognition.

Eileen Turnbull, Shrewsbury 24 Campaign Researcher

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