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Children’s strikes, school walk-outs, and youth political activism

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)

In the last two weeks, university students across the UK have been coming out in solidarity with lecturers and staff in the University and College Union’s USS strike. On the other side of the Atlantic, the news has been dominated by the aftermath of the latest US mass school shooting. Survivors from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, have spearheaded the national #NeverAgain campaign, renewing debate on the ever-controversial issue of gun control. Pledging his support in a tweet on 22 February, Barack Obama implied the high school students had the weight of history behind them: ‘Young people have helped lead all our great movements.’ Major twentieth-century protest campaigns – from civil rights, to women’s rights, gay liberation and nuclear disarmament – were in large part youth movements. It was university students who started the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and, more recently, the 2014 Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong. But children and young people’s strikes have a much longer history.

In July 1888, women and girls came out on strike against poor working conditions at the Bryant and May match factory in East London. Many of those involved in the ‘matchgirls’ strike’ were under sixteen. Press reports played to the idea of ‘match girls’ as passive, innocent and suffering victims. But the strike marked a watershed in female youth activism.[1] With widespread child labour in the West continuing well into the twentieth century, the workplace introduced many children to industrial politics and protest. The Newsboys’ Strike of 1899 in New York is another famous example. The boys’ highly organised strike against the Evening World and Evening Journal secured them a better pay deal from the newspapers.

Less well known is how children replicated these strikes in their schools. School strikes in Britain have taken place since the start of compulsory education in the late nineteenth century. Although press reports often dismissed the children’s activities as disobedient or rebellious, students were motivated by genuine grievances, from corporal punishment to school overcrowding and demands for free education.[2] The children were leading political protests. The major school strikes, which engaged students across the country, coincided with periods of wider industrial unrest in 1889 and 1911.[3] Dave Marson identified school strikes in sixty-two towns in 1911.[4] Often the schoolchildren embraced the actions and symbolism of their adult counterparts. School strikers in Liverpool in 1911 elected a strike committee to present demands to the school, which included banning the cane and more holidays.[5] A strike of 500 schoolchildren in Bethnal Green in 1889 involved the wearing of liberty caps and waving of red flags – long-held symbols of working-class protest.[6]

Children were not just copying the adults around them. Schoolchildren’s protests were sometimes more spontaneous. In her autobiography, Elizabeth Knibb Blackburn from Lancashire remembered a school strike in 1914. Twelve-year-old Elizabeth and her classmates were angry that the neighbouring boys’ schools’ half-holiday – arranged so teachers could watch a local football game – was not extended to them. They responded with ‘a pretend strike at playtime’. Impersonating the suffragettes, they marched around the playground holding strike notices and singing ‘Votes for Women’.[7] Of course this was lower key than the mass walkouts of 1889 and 1911. But it suggests how strikes permeated schoolchildren’s culture and even their play. The schoolgirls seized upon a small instance of gender inequality to protest the much larger issue of women’s suffrage.

Schoolchildren’s strikes continued later in the twentieth century. Owen Emmerson has highlighted the work of the student-led Schools Action Union (SAU) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Organised by the SAU, 10,000 British schoolchildren took part in a school strike against corporal punishment in May 1972, marching through central London. Again, schoolchildren’s activism peaked at a time of heightened global political protest and major industrial unrest at home.

Acting alone, leading others or participating alongside adult allies, children and young people have long been active in major protest movements. As recent events have shown, the course of youth and adult protest continues to be intertwined.


[1] Seth Koven, The Match Girl and the Heiress (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), pp. 88, 100.
[2] Stephen Cunningham and Michael Lavalette, School’s Out: The Hidden History of Britain’s School Student Strikes (London: Bookmarks Publications, 2016), pp. 30, 63.
[3] Stephen Humphries, Hooligans or Rebels? An Oral History of Working-Class Childhood and Youth, 1889-1939 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), p. 98.
[4] Dave Marson, Children’s Strikes in 1911 (Oxford: History Workshop, 1973), p. ii.
[5] Ibid., p. 7.
[6] Cunningham and Lavalette, School’s Out, p. 72.
[7] Elizabeth K. Blackburn, When I Was a Little Girl: A Bunch of Childhood Memories, 1907-16 (Burnley: Brown’s, 1982), p. 55.

Image: Children pickets at Raleigh Hotel waiters’ strike, Washington D.C. (c.1918-20), National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress (

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