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Thanks go to Dr Claire Chatterton for this fascinating  and compelling blog:

One hundred years ago this month, it was reported in the press that “a most remarkable situation has arisen” at a mental health institution near Nottingham, known variously as the Radcliffe Asylum or the Nottinghamshire County Mental Hospital (and later as Saxondale Hospital). Many of the nursing staff, together with some of the domestic staff, had locked themselves into the wards with their patients in a sit-in strike. On the 12 April 1922, the ‘Glasgow Herald’ reported, that the strike had, “passed through its closing stages amongst scenes of the wildest description.” For four hours, the ‘Battle of Radcliffe’ raged until the strikers had to give in. “So ended” said the ‘Nottingham Herald’, “perhaps the most sensational strike of modern times.” So what had led to these events?

The Radcliffe Asylum had been opened in 1902 as a mental asylum for the poor of Nottinghamshire and by the time of the dispute, twenty years later, it had over 600 inpatients. Like all asylums in this period, it had sexually segregated wards, where patients were cared for by nursing staff of the same sex. Many of the nursing and domestic staff were members of a trade union, the National Asylum Workers’ Union (NAWU). This union, which had been founded in 1910 by a group of asylum attendants (as mental health nursing staff were often then known) in the north of England, had grown rapidly to a membership of 15,195 by 1922. Of these approximately 46% were women.

After the First World War the committees running the rate-supported mental asylums in England faced the need to make economies as the country experienced an economic downturn.  In February 1922, the asylum’s Management Committee (composed of local councillors) decided to reduce staff pay, while at the same time increasing the working week (from 60 hours, inclusive of mealtimes, to 66). This was to begin on 5 March. At the union’s branch meeting, it was decided that they would accept the wage cuts but not the increased hours. Over the following days tensions mounted, until on the 27 March 1922, all the staff were sacked and could only be re-engaged if they signed a form, agreeing, “to carry out faithfully all the instructions of the Committee of Visitors, and to loyally obey the Officers of the Mental hospital hereby appointed by the committee to put their orders into operation.” If they didn’t sign, they would also lose their accommodation, a particular concern for married male staff who had families to support (female staff were not allowed to marry in this period).

When the deadline to sign these forms had passed a week later, none of the female staff had signed, nor some of the men. On the 11 April 1922, a sit-in strike (at the time called a ‘stay in’) began. It was the female nursing staff who took the lead, supported by kitchen and domestic workers. The following day some of the male staff joined in and three out of the six male wards on the ground floor were occupied. The Visiting Committee then met and sacked the striking staff for “gross insubordination.”

A bus load of new female staff ‘strike-breakers’ arrived and were billeted in the recreation hall. Events were to reach their climax that afternoon. At 1pm Mr Gell, Clerk to the Committee, and Dr Jones, the Medical Superintendent, arrived at the doors of one of male wards with 25 bailiffs, over 60 policemen and a group of what were described as, “strike-breaking artisans”. The strikers turned fire hoses on them, until the water was turned off at the mains. The artisans tried to unlock the doors but found that they had been jammed by home-made keys. The bailiffs then took over and started to break down the doors with crow bars and fought their way across improvised barricades and even took part in hand-to-hand fighting with staff (and some patients).  According to the ‘Daily Sketch’

“after a fierce hand-to hand struggle, the nurses on strike in Radcliffe Asylum were overpowered and ejected by the police … Insane inmates joined in the struggle on the side of the strikers. Many people were injured, windows were smashed and the furniture of three of the wards was reduced to matchwood.”

One of the strikers, a male probationer (nursing student), Herbert Hough, recalled these events vividly in later years in an oral history interview, “There was a battle of course, particularly on the female side. The patients were all sympathetic to us, and on the female side they fought the police.” As each ward was taken over, the staff were taken prisoner and kept in the nurses’ sitting room, where they reportedly sang ‘Rule Britannia’. They were allowed to collect their belongings and left the asylum. Two motor charabancs, provided by the union, were waiting in the lane and transported them to the Black Lion pub in the nearby town, scene of pre-strike union meetings. According to a local historian, here they were met by a large crowd. There had not been so much excitement in years, he said. Given overnight accommodation by sympathetic villagers, they dispersed in the morning.

There were a number of consequences to the strike. The strikers lost their jobs and homes. The minutes of the Hospital Management Committee of the 8 May 1922 reveal that altogether 73 staff had been discharged for misconduct and forcibly ejected. This included 18 male and 43 female nurses, 2 hall porters, 4 housemaids, 4 kitchen staff and 2 laundry maids. Many of the dismissed staff experienced severe difficulty in finding work, so much so that the union claimed that they were being blacklisted. Some found work only to be dismissed again when their involvement in the strike became known. Many were forced to rely on the union for strike pay in the short term and had to disperse all over the country to find work.

The hospital lost a large percentage of its staff including all the trained nurses and all the senior female nurses (bar the Matron). New and mostly inexperienced staff had to be quickly recruited to replace the sacked strikers. According to Herbert Hough, “it was a long time before they got a really settled staff.” The impact this had on the patients is rarely discussed and can only be imagined, with some caught up in the violence and many of whom had to get used to unfamiliar staff. In his oral history interview, Hubert Hough portrays the medical superintendent and matron as being caught in the middle of the dispute. Both seem to have been ill after the strike as was Mr Gell, Clerk to the Visiting Committee. Dr Jones was to die two years later and the Matron, Ellen Leaver, left the same year. It was also to prove costly to the union, who paid out £3,000 in strike pay to its members, subsequently lost 2,000 members and came close to bankruptcy.

The centenary of the strike provides an appropriate occasion on which to remember the strikers and all those patients and staff that were affected by the ‘Battle of Radcliffe’. As Christopher Hart has said, “It was, and is, extraordinary to think of nurses barricading themselves into wards and turning firehoses on police officers and bailiffs.” Yet, it is rarely recounted or even mentioned in books about nursing history, possibly because it did not fit the image of nurses that general nursing leaders wanted to create. It could also have been because ‘mental nurses’ were not always seen as an integral part of nursing or indeed as ‘real’ nurses. It is also pertinent to note that the strike was predominantly led by female staff and militant, fighting female nurses can hardly be described as angels, a classic stereotype for nurses. Tellingly, the two main nursing journals of the time, the ‘Nursing Times’ and ‘Nursing Mirror’ (which were dominated by general nurses) roundly condemned the strike, which further exacerbated the often poor relationship which existed between these two branches of nursing. The ‘Nursing Times’ said that the strikers had injured the “profession of nursing. We cannot pretend our sympathies are with these “nurses” in these deplorable actions.”

Although it is now 100 years since these events took place, industrial unrest is a topical issue at present amongst nurses and in the National Health Service. As I write this blog, the press is full of reports of the sacking of 800 staff working for the shipping company, P&O, without warning or union consultation, while coach loads of recently recruited staff waited nearby to take over their jobs, on much lower wages and often with little or no experience of the work they were recruited to do, leading to safety concerns. The parallels are striking.

With thanks to Dr Rosie Collins, Nottinghamshire Nursing History Group and Radcliffe WW1.

Primary Sources

Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, MSS 229/NA/1/1/1 National Asylum Workers’ Union Nat. Exec. Council and other committees 1919-1924

Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, MSS 229/6/C/CO/7/12 Interview with Hubert Hough, recorded 10.7.79.

Nottinghamshire Archives, SO/HO/1/4/1 Minutes of the meetings of the House Committee, 1919-1924

Nottinghamshire Archives, SO/HO/1/6/1-12 Annual Reports 1852-1947

Nottinghamshire Archives, SO/HO/1/10 Photocopies of newspaper and journal reports on the strike at the Asylum in 1922

Nottingham Journal 15th April 1922

Daily Sketch 15th April 1922

Glasgow Herald 15th April 1922

Nursing Times  22 April 1922

National Asylum Workers Magazine.   March, April, July  and August 1922

Nursing Mirror (1922) ‘A strike of Asylum Attendants’ April 22, XXXV, 391, 1-2

Secondary Sources

Carpenter, M. (1988)   Working for Health. London, Lawrence and Wishart

Dopson, L. (1985) ‘The Radcliffe martyr’ Nursing Times. June 12, 18-20

Douglas, A.D.M and Oram, E.G (1990) ‘A State of Insubordination and Mutiny’ Psychiatric Bulletin. 14, 302-5.

Hart, C. (1994) Behind the Mask. Nurses, Their Unions and Social Policy   London, Baillière Tindall.