The 1920 strike at John Lewis

A newspaper article from an un-named newspaper, showing both the determined strikers on the left, and an unflinching Mr John Lewis on the right

Mr Lewis in hot water once more

By the 1920’s the Lewis family was in tumultuous waters. Spedan Lewis and his father were in effect ignoring each other, and both Peter Jones and John Lewis were simultaneously struggling as a result of the depression of 1920, and the difficulties that World War One had left behind. Undeterred, both marched on. Whilst Spedan continued to lay the foundations of a Partnership at his shop, back in Oxford Street, old Mr Lewis once again landed himself in hot water.

Despite being a self-confessed Liberal, active on the local and London County Council political scene, John Lewis came down hard when his authority was threatened. And in 1920, this was exactly what happened.

Staff go on strike

Tired of the autocratic and thoroughly Victorian manner in which John Lewis ran his shop, John Lewis staff took strike action en-masse on the 27th April 1920, the day of a large John Lewis sale. They wanted representation by a trade union, which would guarantee them fair treatment, pay and working conditions. Unrelenting, Mr Lewis hit straight back and hard. All those on strike he fired on the spot, declaring afterwards;

‘If I see them on their hands and knees, I shall not take them back!’

Unmoved by public sympathy

Whilst Mr Lewis was left smarting at the ‘accursed trade unionists’, the 400 strikers gained almost instant public sympathy. Many rival companies such as Harrods and the Army and Navy Stores provided funds to the strikers. Queen Mary herself made a sizeable donation to the cause. After all, many were after free association, something that had been given to workers by most entrepreneurs and industrialists by 1920.

In the end however, staff were left with no other option but to find alternative employment, as Mr Lewis refused to budge an inch.

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