The Sun’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, is notorious for, among other things, smashing the print unions at his Wapping headquarters in London in the 1980s. So you may be surprised to learn that the Sun’s origins can be traced back to a bulletin produced to support a London printers’ strike.
The Daily Herald was launched in January 1911 with four pages focused on the dispute – and a poem by the socialist William Morris on the front page. It soon began to support other workers’ struggles. And it moved in an explicitly socialist direction as left wingers like Ben Tillet of the dockers’ union and radical Labour MP George Lansbury became central to its production.
The paper folded for financial reasons in the summer of 1911, but was relaunched a year later in April 1912. The Herald was never a revolutionary socialist paper in the sense of standing clearly for workers overthrowing capitalism.
But in its early years it was a model of what a workers’ paper could be in a period of rising struggle. It also won a mass audience with a daily circulation of 150,000 before the First World War.
You can read the Herald if you visit the British Library’s excellent newspaper library in north London.
Any day’s edition from 1912, 1913 and early 1914 is still exciting to read, alive with the energy of workers’ struggles and lives. Those years were the peak of what historians call the ‘Great Unrest’, a wave of strikes and mass unionisation. The Herald reflected and supported every struggle. The New Year’s Day edition of 1913, for example, headlines the start of a strike by taxi drivers in London, with detailed reports of strikers’ meetings and a call for support.
Letters from readers played a big part in the paper, as did its reports on workers’ daily experience under capitalism. There were articles on ‘bullying at work’, ‘long hours, low wages’, ‘nine hours night work for three shillings’ and ‘a bus cleaner’s day’s work’ alongside reports of people fighting back against such conditions.
The paper extensively covered what it sometimes dubbed ‘workers’ playtime’ – reports on horse racing, football, gardening, and even ‘workers and fashion’. Alongside this was major coverage of literature, theatre and new classical music by composers like Elgar and Schoenberg, and debates about evolution.
The paper won a huge reputation. One correspondent describes how during the 1913 taxi drivers’ strike ‘I was continually greeted with ‘Wotcher Daily Herald’ and ‘Good luck to the old paper’.’ The paper proudly boasted, ‘We have the rank and file. It is the continual pride of the Herald that it speaks for the people.’
George Lansbury wrote that ‘all men and women struggling to better their conditions instinctively turned to the Daily Herald in those first years’. The Herald proclaimed, ‘Revolt against servitude is good, fighting for our place in the sun is good, the more revolt and the more fighting the better.’
The paper did not just report workers’ lives and struggles in Britain. From the beginning it was internationalist. Every edition carried major and often quite detailed reports of politics and workers’ struggles from around the world.
In March 1913, for example, it carried daily reports of a massive general strike in Belgium with headlines like ‘One And A Half Million Strike. All Businesses At A Standstill And The Middle Classes In A Panic’.
The paper embraced the latest techniques of popular newspaper production, with banner headlines and sensational exposés of the rich and powerful.
The Herald also pioneered the use of photographs of workers’ struggles and lives and it used pictures to expose the system.
A powerful half-page photo showed gaunt, desperate-looking London dockers queuing at the dock gate in a dim half-light. The caption read simply, ‘Time: seven in the morning: shall we get a job today?’ Underneath were pictures of dockers’ children in threadbare clothes.
As the First World War approached, one of the Herald’s most powerful photo pages was headlined ‘No Money For Children, But Plenty To Burn’. Underneath were pictures of shoeless London children next to images of brand new naval destroyers and artillery pieces being churned out in preparation for war.
No struggle was too small for the Herald. One report tells how ‘there was consternation among the fashionable diners at the Imperial Restaurant, Regent Street, on Sunday night. They sat at the table in evening dress and ordered their dinners. ‘But the rich meats did not reach the tables. The simple fact was that the waiters struck at 8.30pm.’ By 10.30pm, the Herald cheerfully reported, the waiters had won their demands.
Day after day the paper ran reports of the women’s suffrage campaign, and the most radical of the Suffragette leaders, Sylvia Pankhurst, wrote regularly for the paper. One of the Herald’s finest moments was its rallying of support for the 1913 Dublin lockout, when bosses tried to break Irish workers’ unions.
After a savage police attack on strikers in Dublin the Herald declared, ‘The Irish police are part of a vicious system. They are one element in the complicated scheme designed to hold Ireland for Britain, or rather British capitalism.’
Lansbury saw the paper as a forum for all sorts of ideas within the movement, with the Herald rarely pushing a clear argument about the way forward for the movement. That did not matter too much when the movement was rising, as it was in the years before 1914. But faced with decisive turning points, where clarity is vital, this could be a crippling weakness. When war started amid a wave of jingoism in August 1914 the Herald kept its anti-war stance, proclaiming ‘The triumph of Hell’.
But some key figures, such as Ben Tillet, supported the war. This split, coupled with the rising wartime cost of newsprint, hit the Herald hard and it moved to weekly publication.
The Herald was relaunched as a daily in 1919. But now it had backing and finance from some official leaders of the labour movement. The Herald continued to report the workers’ struggles that rose after 1919, but weaknesses began to show.
In 1921 the rail and transport union leaders betrayed the miners in what was a major defeat for the working class movement. The Herald rightly proclaimed this as ‘Black Friday’, but its editorial insisted, ‘It is not for us to blame certain individuals or sections of the movement.’
Some of the very leaders who had betrayed the struggle were on the Herald’s fundraising committee.
In the following period the workers’ movement ebbed and the paper lost direction.
In 1925 Lansbury handed control of the Herald to the TUC, which in turn sold a half share to the giant print firm Odhams.
In the 1960s it passed out of the hands of the TUC and, renamed as the Sun, into the hands of Rupert Murdoch.
In the years before 1914 the Herald was one of the finest workers’ papers ever produced.
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward
We shouldn’t let them hide from the truth