From The Library: Gladstone’s Silver Buttons

Arguably, Robert Gladstone was the most prolific donor to the Athenaeum’s library. Bookplates testify to donations made during his lifetime and to the scale of his probate bequest – all of his books and papers, of which there are many, many. Gladstone (Bertie to his family) was born in 1866 into a wealthy Woolton family; he was great nephew of the Prime Minister, W.E. Gladstone. After education at Eton and Oxford he returned to the family home and never practiced the law that he had studied. His three brothers followed their father into mercantile East India careers, but Robert has ‘no occupation’ recorded in the 1901 census. He had begun to research local history and wrote a few articles. Meanwhile he collected voraciously and kept notes, books, maps, copies of material, and correspondence. Nothing appears to have been discarded.

As a man with no discernible occupation, Robert was able to join every organisation that interested him and to attend all kinds of meetings and talks. His committee attendance was formidable. Amongst his eclectic collection of material is evidence of some of his activity in 1911 – and hence the silver buttons.

During the summer of 1911 Liverpool’s General Transport Strike paralysed the city’s commerce; nothing could be moved in or out of the port. The strike began in mid-June with the merchant seafarers’ action, and other workers were soon to join in support – the carters, the railwaymen, the navvies, the firemen, the warehousemen, the dockers. The strike committee was chaired by Tom Mann, an able and experienced organiser who had helped to found many labour unions. It was estimated that c.250,000 workers in Liverpool were on strike. The docks and railways were at a standstill and it appeared that Southampton and other ports might join the action.  The Government became increasingly concerned and Home Secretary Winston Churchill ordered 3,500 regular troops to Liverpool and HMS Antrim to be moored in the Mersey. Liverpool’s Head Constable was authorised to call for assistance from other forces.  Mob violence and intimidation grew as the strike held on. Troops with fixed bayonets and large numbers of police were used to escort convoys of wagons carrying food supplies.

Special Constables were enrolled to assist the regular police force – and Robert Gladstone joined, aged 45. The silver buttons came from his uniform – or possibly from his uniform as one of the new Police Reservists that were created in October 1911.

The most serious disturbance associated with the strike occurred on 13 August 1911 – Bloody Sunday. A crowd of 80,000 attended a rally on St George’s Plateau. Police stationed inside St George’s Hall attempted a baton charge, supported by mounted officers. The Riot Act was read by the city’s stipendiary magistrate. On Tuesday 15August police vans taking 90 of those convicted to Walton Gaol were attacked in Vauxhall Road. Members of the 18th Hussars opened fire. Altogether over 350 people were injured and 2 men were killed. The strike ended on 24 August. The front page of Illustrated London News for 19 August carried a large picture of the recent event in Liverpool.

Special Constable Robert Gladstone had been stationed at Westminster Road Police Station in Kirkdale. How much activity he saw is unknown. What is evident is that he kept personal memorabilia from this time – and, in due course, bequeathed it to the Athenaeum. His coat buttons have been recently polished. With them is a ‘special’ badge. Whether this was issued is again unknown. It appears to have been designed by Gladstone himself. He certainly went on to design a shield for the police that was adopted later by Liverpool City Constabulary. There is correspondence about a memorial photograph that Gladstone organised in December 1911. It was approved by the Head Constable and was of Sections 8 and 9 of the Special Constables who had served at Westminster Road. Intriguingly, there are the names and addresses of these men, including that of Noel Chavasse. Gladstone also obtained and kept three issues of The Transport Worker, a 24-page paper edited by Tom Mann. No 1 Vol 1 appeared in August 1911, No 2 in September, and No 3 in October. As far as I can tell, these papers are not available in Liverpool City Archives.

We can only speculate on Robert Gladstone’s motives for joining the Specials. His pride in his service is, however, evident. I think his official silver buttons remain the only items of haberdashery in the Athenaeum’s archives.

Robert Gladstone, share 422 (1891-1940); President 1907. Other Proprietors were also Special Constables.

For more information and some graphic photographs, see E. Taplin, Near to Revolution: The Liverpool General Transport Strike of 1911 (The Bluecoat Press, 1994) Athenaeum Library L2 331.89 TAP.

                                                                                                            Janet Hollinshead