The rent strikes of the late 1930s were a landmark in the history of working-class Britain. This selection of photographs from the Daily Herald Archive exemplify how the left-leaning newspaper reported political protest.
What is the Daily Herald Archive?
The Daily Herald was a British national newspaper published between 1912 and 1964. At one point, it was the top-selling newspaper in the world, with a monthly circulation of more than 2 million.
Every photograph and negative taken for the newspaper was stored in a picture library, categorised and filed for easy access should they ever be needed again. This amazing collection—comprising 3.5 million photographs, contact sheets and glass negatives—is the Daily Herald Archive, which we now care for at the National Science and Media Museum here in Bradford.
This story is based on a selection of images from the archive.
Don’t put the working man down
People have been going on strike as far back as Ancient Egypt, when in 1170 BCE artisans building the burial chambers of King Ramses III did not receive their wage rations.
During the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, striking became a common feature of society as workers started to develop a collective consciousness around their rights. This sense of empowerment enabled workers to stand together against poor working conditions, low wages and high rents.
Newspapers have played—and continue to play—an important role in reporting the progress and outcome of strikes. However, depending on the political affiliations and motivations of editors, newspapers also can be used as propaganda tools to deliberately mislead the public about strikers’ actions and intentions.
What is a strike sheet?
A strike sheet—also known as a strike bulletin—is a newsletter, or very basic newspaper, printed to support striking workers. They can be just one or two pages, or a few pages long, and typically include articles related to strike action, negotiations, official statements, and the parties involved in the dispute.
When a strike is happening, some established newspapers focus entirely on these events and print at a reduced size, while other strike sheets are created solely for the duration of the strike. One example of the latter is The British Worker, a daily newspaper published by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) between 5 and 17 May for the General Strike in 1926.
Justice at the heart
The Daily Herald was printed as a strike sheet in 1911 before it became an established daily newspaper in April 1912.
This strike sheet supported the London Society of Compositors, a printers’ union who were involved in an industrial dispute to establish a 48-hour work week and improved pay and conditions. The union started printing a daily strike bulletin called The World from late 1910 and renamed it The Daily Herald from 25 January 1911, continuing to print until the strike ceased in April 1911.
The Daily Herald was so successful in helping the print unions that a movement began for it to be established as a daily newspaper to support the socialist cause. The movement succeeded and the Herald relaunched to deal with issues directly related to the working man and woman.
The Daily Herald went through many changes in management during its existence, but continued to support strikers across the country until the late 1960s. Below are just a few examples of photographs the newspaper printed in its reports on strikes and protests.
The Great Depression
The Daily Herald reported on many strikes throughout its history, including wage disputes, unemployment marches and rent strikes. These reports were particularly prevalent during the difficult times of the 1930s.
Following the Wall Street Crash in 1929, the US, and later many other countries across the world, fell into what is often referred to as the ‘Great Depression’ or ‘Great Slump’. This period was characterised by high unemployment, extreme hunger and relentless poverty—and the Daily Herald was on the frontline to capture the conflict that ensued.
However, Britain experienced something of a divide during this period, with places like Wales and the North-East seeing the worst poverty and unemployment. In contrast, people living in the Midlands and especially South England benefited from new and expanding industries like car manufacturing and pharmaceuticals, which steadily increased wages and made food and mortgages cheaper.
However, not everyone living in the more affluent parts of the country benefitted from these expanding industries. Rent strikes grew in number in the late 1930s, particularly in the East End of London where people were living in slum-like conditions with rising rents.
The East End is an area of London that built up very quickly in the 19th century and had a reputation for poverty, overcrowding and violence. The rent strikes of 1938–39 are just one example of its residents fighting back against slum landlords and people who tried to take advantage of their vulnerable position in society.
Rent controls—limits on the amounts landlords could charge—were introduced in 1915 to deal with the excessive increase in rents due to the wartime housing crisis. They were gradually reversed throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and by 1938 large numbers of houses had no rent control at all.
However, some houses were still subject to controls and rent could vary considerably between buildings in the same area. As the law related to rent control became more and more incomprehensible, some landlords did not hesitate to take advantage of this and defraud their tenants.
Most of the East End strike action took place between 1938 and September 1939, but some happened earlier; a feeling of discontent had been brewing among tenants in the area for some years. Strikers’ demands included repairs, necessary decoration and rent reductions, mostly in decontrolled buildings.
The Stepney Tenants’ Defence League was set up in late 1937 to help with individual rent and repair problems as a response to this.
Some of the fights were long and bitter. Tenants at Brunswick Buildings were on strike for 11 weeks, while tenants at Langdale Street Buildings and Brady Street were on strike for five months; with the latter, their battles were particularly fierce. At first, the landlords refused to negotiate and issued eviction orders to some of their most active tenants.
You shall not pass!
As the strikes progressed in Stepney and other areas, barbed wire was placed around entire blocks and pickets were placed on duty round the clock, only admitting tenants or known tradespeople into the buildings.
The fight at Langdale Mansions got particularly violent in June 1939 when bailiffs got access to the building. The tenants had to defend themselves with saucepans, rolling pins, sticks and shovels. The police were called to the scene and their treatment was brutal. Many people were forcibly taken away and women were attacked when their partners were at work.
The Stepney Tenants’ Defence League stepped in, mobilising thousands of its members to stand with the tenants at Langdale and Brady Street Mansions. The police withdrew, and the landlords eventually caved into tenants’ demands by reducing rents and making repairs. Many other landlords soon followed suit, wishing to avoid similarly violent conflicts.
Women fight back
Women have been the main protagonists behind rent strikes across the country and throughout history.
In working-class society in particular, a woman’s role was inextricably linked to her home and family. While men were considered the main breadwinners, earning money to support their family, women would manage the household accounts and budget. Any changes to this budget, like unexpected rent increases, would be more keenly felt by women—and they responded accordingly. The mass strikes in 1938–39 were no different.
Beyond the East End
The rent strikes were not confined to Stepney. In London, there were outbreaks in Bethnal Green, Clapham, Willesden, Finsbury, Poplar, Bermondsey, Paddington, Battersea, Highgate, Norwood and Shoreditch.
So pervasive was the issue that strikes also took place across the UK, in Birmingham, Huddersfield, Liverpool, Aberdeen, Sunderland, Oxford and Sheffield.
An end in sight?
Many of the rent strikes in Stepney and beyond can be called a success—but the problem with inflated rents still existed in many areas. This was only resolved at the outbreak of the Second World War when rent controls were introduced in law once again. The accompanying problems of high employment and poverty were also temporarily reduced, with many new jobs created to help the war effort.
However, the end of the Second World War brought the same problems as the end of the First. The housing crisis was devastating, and people took up their placards once again to strike against rising rents. In 1957 a new but all-too-familiar act, the Rent Act, was introduced, removing nearly all caps on private rent. History does repeat itself after all.