A traumatic event in Braunston was the Boatman’s strike that lasted for 14 weeks. This strike brought long distance commercial traffic to a virtual standstill on the canal system when the TGWU called the members employed by Fellows, Morton Clayton (FMC) out on strike. The strike began on 13 August 1923. Braunston was one of two affected depots on the Grand Junction Canal.
The main problems with long distance canal carrying were that families were now living aboard boats in overcrowded conditions. This meant that they were being used as unpaid labour and were not protected for sickness or injury, the children were receiving little formal education. The wage structure was also irregular. Boatmen had expenses, which were not re-imbursed by their employers, and working hours were long. For example, one boatman said that, on average, he worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for less than £1.5s (£1.25p) a week.
Union leaders considered boatmen to be a minority group needing special help with their pay and living conditions. They had successfully negotiated with some companies but experienced difficulties with others. A 48-hour working week and a minimum wage were the main proposals, along with fixed tonnage rates and a calculated time for each working trip. It was intended to employ 2 men as company employees on each boat and not make deductions for horse provisions and equipment. It was proposed that a weekly wage of £1.5s (£1.25p) for captains and £1 for mates would be paid plus tonnage as agreed.
However, FMC refused to attend the general discussions and, by April 1923, had cut their rates by 15%. On 10 August they announced that a further cut of 10% was imminent. This was the last straw. The boats, many still loaded, stopped. Between 50 and 60 boats were moored below Bottom Lock, adding approximately 300 extra people to the village population of just over 1,000.
Sam Brooks, a TGWU administrator, moved into the ‘Ship Inn “ and in addition to organising the strike he organised social events and worked to boost the morale of the strikers. The strikers were paid full strike pay and, following collections, an extra payment of 2s 6d (12.5p) was made for married men and 1s 6d (7.5p) for single.
FMC refused to negotiate terms and threatened to go into liquidation. They wanted to unload the cargoes of tea and sugar from 3 boats but were foiled by the boatmen, their families and a barricade consisting of 4 boatloads of tar. The boats were finally unloaded on 5th September with the aid of the police and to the accompaniment of boos, singing and shouting. In October the company tried to evict the crews from their boats.
On the 9th November Judge Justice Romer heard a case in Brentford, brought against FMC concerning interference with the safe delivery of cargo (which was traditionally the boatman’s responsibility) and also trespass. The case was adjourned for one week but on Sunday 18th November Braunston strikers agreed to return to work after FMC agreed to arbitration. At 7 am on Monday 19 November some boats started to move but the boatmen were on the same terms as before the strike.