Remembering the Invergordon Mutiny

On this day in 1931, Royal Navy sailors mutinied against enforced pay cuts, singing ‘The Red Flag’ as they refused orders. Their actions inspired workers across Britain – and sent fear through the ruling class.

The British Atlantic Fleet, photographed in the late 1920s. Credit: Creative Commons

In September 1931, Britain was reeling from the global economic crisis triggered two years previously by the Wall Street Crash. While 2,700,000 unemployed people languished on the dole queues, the newly formed National Government began implementing severe spending cuts to supposedly fix the economy.

This government, headed by two former Labour politicians—Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and Chancellor Phillip Snowden—betrayed the labour movement by joining the Conservatives and some Liberals to ensure the upholding of free market dogma, despite the suffering it had caused.

The previous Labour administration was recommended by the May Committee to make £96 million worth of cuts to reduce Britain’s deficit and keep Britain on the Gold Standard – a measure which tied the pound to the price of gold, increasing prices and interest rates.

Economist Henry Clay warned the removal of the Gold Standard would lead to economic collapse and would facilitate revolution in continental Europe and ‘the triumph of international communism’.

The committee’s report spilt the Cabinet, with MacDonald and Snowden leading the case for cuts. With his ministers at deadlock, MacDonald went to the King on 23 August 1931 to offer his resignation.

George V, however, had other ideas. He appealed to MacDonald’s patriotism, urging him to form a National Government with the Conservatives and Liberals. The King promised him that ‘his position and reputation would be much more enhanced than if he surrendered the government of the country at such a crisis’.

MacDonald and his allies duly abandoned Labour, in a move sold as patriotic, but which was in reality a capitulation to the ruling class. The Daily Herald, whose sales skyrocketed to over a million copies a day, described the National Government as a ‘dictatorship of international finance’. The price of saving the pound, it argued, ‘is to be paid by the very poorest people of this country’.

Labour MP John Bromley viewed the development as a war ‘between the working people and the financial interests of unadulterated capitalism’. Despite this, the National Government wasted no time implementing cuts. The cruelty of the means test for unemployment benefits was introduced, with public sector and unemployment pay reduced by 10%.

Even the armed forces weren’t safe. Pay cuts in the Royal Navy were nothing new; hopeful entrants from 1925 onwards were paid a shilling a day less than their counterparts who joined before that year. However, the government’s announcement of 10% pay cuts in the Navy amounted to a 25% pay cut to the pre-1925 contingent.

An Unexpected Rebellion

In Invergordon, a port town in the far northeast of Scotland, several warships were stationed. Word of the pay cuts soon spread on the lower decks of these ships around on 11 September. A communication breakdown meant that ordinary seamen were aware of the news a day before their captains.

In discussions over the pay cuts, several seamen reported ‘tension’; those on the pre-1925 wage often had a wife and young children, making the 25% cut very hard to accept. George Hill, a seaman on the Norfolk cruiser, explained later: ‘I was on four and six a day, and I had to get clothing for the children. My heart fell through, that was the general feeling for all of us.’

Soon, anger turned into planned agitation. Alongside others, Len Wincott—Hill’s fellow seaman on Norfolk—openly pondered strike action. Having been born into poverty in Leicester 24 years earlier, Wincott was all too aware of the consequences these cuts would create, and he worked across the weekend and into Monday 14 September militating among sailors for a plan of action.

Taking inspiration from the Chilean Navy, who had bravely mutinied against 30% pay cuts earlier in the year, sailors responded quickly to the situation, taking advantage of their captains’ relative slowness to respond. William Symons, a sailor from Nelson, Lancashire, recalled a seamen’s meeting where speakers ‘talked about the government, about Ramsay MacDonald’, and about ‘how the 25% cut would hurt the lowest paid men in the Navy.’

Wincott proposed the men refuse their orders to load the ships and sail. ‘Passive resistance and no blood-shed’, as he put it, meant that the uprising would be considered a strike and not a mutiny, thus avoiding the death penalty as punishment. At the end of the meeting, the seamen voted in favour of holding strike action.

Those who were absent at this meeting were soon aware of its outcome. Wincott and his close allies spread the news to the lower decks of each ship. One by one, the majority of the lower decks agreed to down tools on Tuesday 15 September. One stoker was persuaded by the powerful speeches of the committed strikers, who ‘spoke of the misery and suffering and poverty’ the cuts would cause to themselves and their families.

By this time, those on the upper deck were fully aware of the pay cuts, as some had even witnessed sailors failing to salute them. The Red Flag was proudly sung by the mutineers in public, and captains duly reported such concerns to the government. But remarkably, the gravity of the situation didn’t really hit home to the captains, commanders, and admirals, who took no action against potential strikers. They would be in for a rude awakening.

Despite Wincott’s best efforts, strike action varied from ship to ship. On huge warships, communicating a clear, coordinated plan was incredibly challenging, made all the more difficult because some ships were due to sail out while others remained ashore. Some men were out on the harbour by 5.30 AM; others stayed put until 8 AM.

Many on the lower decks still retained respect for their superiors, which in turn made them more likely to accept an act of resistance deemed as peaceful and non-violent. No clear strategy existed over what to do next: some sailors wanted to burn down Ramsay MacDonald’s home in Lossiemouth, while others wanted to seize a train to London and protest outside of Parliament.

There was similar dysfunctionality among the officers; some captains made strong threats to dissenters, while others offered sympathy – and some were simply nowhere to be seen. Despite these issues, however, all but one of the ships saw an active rebellion.

It was on one of these ships that my great-grandad Martin Welsh served, defiantly striking for a better life for himself, his wife, and his young family. Through the tales of my grandad, passed onto my mother, and then to me, I know he was involved in the mutiny.

Born in Liverpool around the early 1900s, Martin, like most working men in the city, would have found employment at sea. My grandad Harry did not speak much of the mutiny to my mum. When he did, however, she recalls that he would almost ‘spit out’ the details, such was his rage at his father’s treatment.

The Top Brass Respond

As the mutiny continued throughout the Monday, senior naval figures and cabinet members convened to discuss their response to the unrest. A forceful suppression of the strike was considered; however, most senior figures in the state were keen to keep foreign investors onside and avoid panic that could trigger further economic debilitation.

It was agreed that all ships would sail to their home ports, offering many of the exhausted seamen time to return home and see their families. Men on the pre-1925 rate would see no further reductions in pay, with the rest of the navy still seeing a 10% cut. This action worked, as many of the men were gradually seduced by the return home and encouraged by captains who promised they would not be punished for their actions. To most men, who were not overtly politicised and still respected their superiors, it seemed like a fair deal. By Wednesday 17 September , the mutiny was over.

Many of the men involved, however, faced severe punishments. The government had been forced off the Gold Standard due to loss of confidence in the pound, and thus sought to pursue recriminations subtle enough to avoid major unrest but damaging enough to those involved in the mutiny. Figures such as Wincott were spied on by the secret services, who were convinced they were planning a further wave of Communist-orchestrated agitation.

Many mutineers, such as Martin, were sent to military barracks where they were forced to carry out hard labour. Martin’s six-month spell in Barlinnie, and subsequent discharge from the Navy, broke him. He ended up contemplating travelling to New Zealand, changing his surname to Campbell in the hope of finding work. He did not make the journey. His wife died in 1936; he would pass away six months later. My grandad Harry was left without a mum or dad at just 18 years old, in a working-class city enduring brutal poverty.

For understandable reasons, Harry did not like to speak too much of his father’s suffering. He did however inherit his dad’s radical politics and social conscience. He served in the RAF during the Second World War and was proud of his role in the defeat of fascism. On his return to Britain, he worked on the Liverpool docks, where he once saved a man from drowning and received an award for bravery.

Along with my grandmother, he proudly espoused the socialist politics of Michael Foot and Tony Benn, as they sought to build a country where the hardship they had endured would be drastically alleviated. These beliefs would be spread throughout my family, as my mum gave me the middle name of Martin.

Invergordon’s Lessons

There is much to learn from the Invergordon Mutiny. As with all industrial action, clear demands and plans of action are key, with bonds of solidarity needing to be cemented rather than spontaneous acts, which tend to fizzle out quickly.

The fact these actions were conducted under the leadership of former Labour figures also showed the danger of supposed principled politicians who ignore the wishes of the movement that put them into power for the sake of ‘national unity’.

As a young Labour politician, Aneurin Bevan stood up for the Invergordon Mutineers, arguing that the unrest exposed the government’s lack of concern ‘with those whose bread and butter are dependent on their pay.’ He, like my great-grandad Martin and Len Wincott, would be proven right in their principles.