Striking ancestors

This guide was last updated in 2010

Tracking down your forebears' involvement in trade union strikes can reveal fascinating insights into both their working and personal lives, as Mark Crail explains. 

Nearly quarter of a century has now passed since a year-long miners’ strike ended in defeat for the National Union of Mineworkers. But while images of this and other relatively recent disputes spring instantly to mind, we have to go back to the first quarter of the 20th century to see industrial unrest at its peak.

Actor Zoë Wanamaker had to cross the Atlantic to find out about her grandfather’s role in a long and bitterly fought strike back in 1911, but many of us can hope to find similar tales closer to home.

The years 1911 and 1912 saw 'syndicalism' – the idea that workers could win economic and political change through union activities rather than at the ballot box – at its height both in the US and the UK. Here, more than 40 million working days were lost to strikes in 1911 alone.

Finding the evidence of our own ancestors’ involvement in historic strikes – and the vastly greater number of small disputes now lost to the history books – is not always easy. But if you succeed, you can add some fascinating and colourful stories to your family history.

Your research may open up new avenues to find out about your ancestors’ daily lives. In days gone by, trade unions provided a vital safety net, paying out funds in the event of unemployment, illness and death, and many records have survived.

Union members also played a vital part in the political arena – campaigning for working men and women to be given the vote, creating the Labour Party, and seeking changes to the law to give ordinary people greater protection at work.

Photo © Getty Images

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