When British seafarers went on strike against Franco shipment

Post date: 17/11/2021

Jim Jump tells the story of the crew of the Linaria, who in a famous act of solidarity refused to take a cargo of potential explosives from the US to fascist Spain. The seafarers faced prosecution on their return to Britain and narrowly escaped severe punishment, possibly imprisonment, thanks to a vigorous legal defence mounted with the help of supporters at home.

This piece was originally published in ¡No Pasaran! 3-2021. Jump is the IBMT Chair and former editor of the NUS/RMT newspaper, The Seaman.

The Linaria, date and place unknown.

Much has been written and said in the past few years about those seafarers who supported and in some cases gave their lives for the Spanish Republican cause. A memorial to the British crews who ran the fascist blockade of Spanish Republican ports was unveiled in Glasgow in 2019. In 2018 a plaque was erected in Alicante to Archibald Dickson, master of the Stanbrook, the last ship to rescue Republican refugees in the dying days of the country’s civil war. Scores of British and Irish merchant seamen also volunteered to join the International Brigades, often jumping ship in Spain to do so.

When remembering this proud record we should not overlook the story of the merchant ship Linaria, whose crew risked prosecution and their livelihoods for refusing to take ingredients for explosives to Franco-held Spain. They went on strike in Boston, Massachusetts, on 23 February 1937, announcing that ‘we will not take out the ship if it means helping to kill people in Spain’.

This was not a simple case of industrial action. It was against the law for seafarers to go on strike in a foreign port. By deciding on their ‘stay-in strike’, the Linaria crew were breaching the draconian provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act. What they were doing was tantamount to mutiny.

Seventeen of the crew, most of them from Tyneside and the North-East, were arrested and charged under the 1888 Act on arrival in Liverpool a month later.

Abandoned by their own union, the National Union of Seaman (now part of RMT), which was then under right-wing, pro- employer leadership, they relied on local Aid Spain activists, as well as a defence committee set up in Tyneside to help them raise money for their legal costs and for travel and accommodation.


On Merseyside their defence was organised by Jack Jones, a local docker and union activist who would go on to join the International Brigades – and to become one of Britain’s outstanding trade union leaders of the last century. He worked with local Labour MP and lawyer Sydney Silverman to launch a financial appeal, put together a legal team and looked after the welfare of the men.

The crew decided to take a stand shortly after they were berthed in Portland, Maine, on 20 February, with a cargo of anthracite from the Soviet port of Mariupol (now in Ukraine). They learned then that their next port of call would be Boston, where the 3,385 ton Stag Line ship would load nitrates to take to Seville.

Soon after helping the Linaria crew, Jack Jones was elected as a Labour councillor in Liverpool. In the following year he joined the International Brigades.

They immediately made a united protest to the master, Capt James Robinson. According to a report in the
Daily Herald on 22 February, under the headline ‘British steamer crew’s cargo protest’, the nitrates were ‘for use in the manufacture of explosives’.

The report went on to say that the crew had agreed to proceed to Boston, where there would be talks ‘to thrash out the matter’ with the owners and officers. They meanwhile elected a negotiating committee, headed by Alex ‘Spike’ Robson, a ship’s fireman. He said: ‘We do not want to help deliver nitrates because we do not want to be a party to the killing of women and children by bombs and shells.’

Robson later explained to The Shieldsman on 22 April that, despite assurances that the nitrates were to be used as fertilisers, ‘we decided that the only course was to go on strike, which we did’.

The US dockers’ union, the ILA, was reported as saying it would see to it that the cargo of nitrates would not be loaded.

On 26 February the Board of Trade in London ruled that the cargo for Seville did not contravene Britain’s policy of non- intervention in the war in Spain. The seafarers disagreed and their sit-in strike in Boston lasted 10 days. During this time the NUS representative in New York strongly advised the men to proceed with the voyage, subject to the inclusion of a special clause in their terms that would provide additional wages and indemnity in the case of injury. When this was rejected by the crew as ‘blood money’, the NUS complained that the men were being led by ‘a well known communist’ – a reference to Spike Robson.

Fearful no doubt that the example of the Linaria crew might inspire other seafarers to take industrial action against trade with Francoist Spain, the British consul-general in Boston warned the strikers that they would find it very difficult to get another job. He told them that ‘every British captain and every British shipping company in the world will know that you are of the Linaria crowd’.

The Linaria strike took place against the background of efforts initiated by Scandinavian maritime trade unions to agree an international trade boycott of Franco’s Spain. By the end of 1936 plans for the boycott had been drawn up by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). However, backed by the TUC, the NUS and the Transport & General Workers’ Union, representing dockers, immediately objected. ITF general secretary Edo Fimmen said after hearing their objections at a meeting in Paris in 1936: ‘It was just as if they were representing their own government.’

Meanwhile, the Norwegian seamen’s union began telling its members to prevent the departure of ships to Franco-held ports. Several were stopped in Cardiff and Newcastle when Norwegian crews walked off their ships. Rank-and-file union activists on Newcastle Trades Council supported the action. But as Fimmen noted in January 1937: ‘The British unions not only do not join the action, but indirectly try to hinder it by allowing their own people to load [the ships] for the rebels and man them.’

Though facing hostility from their own union, the Linaria crew did receive backing for their stand from Labour leader Clement Attlee. Raising the dispute in the House of Commons on 26 February, Attlee asked whether the government had sent instructions to the consul-general in Boston to support the crew. The future prime minister went on to ask what the position was of seafarers ‘who are asked to load supplies which are obviously war supplies’. In response, the government reiterated its view that the nitrate cargo was not prohibited.

Alex ‘Spike’ Robson was elected by his Linaria crewmates to head the strike committee; pictured in Royal Navy uniform during the Second World War.

In a hopeless position, however, the
Linaria crew eventually agreed to be paid off and repatriated, with money deducted from their wages for their time on strike. On arrival in Liverpool they were charged with ‘neglect of duty and wilful disobedience of a lawful order’.

Their case came to court in Liverpool early in May 1937. They presented evidence from an analytical chemist, who pointed out that nitrates are essential for the manufacture of munitions. The magistrate declared their action justified, but fined them each 40 shillings (about three days’ pay) for impeding the progress of their ship.

Though let off relatively lightly, the men and their supporters launched a successful appeal, which saw their fines quashed. As Jack Jones later recalled: ‘A good case was presented before the Recorder, EG Hemmerde, KC. The defendants were lucky because Hemmerde had strong socialist sympathies.’

The Daily Herald reported on 6 June: ‘Holding that they were justified in refusing to sail to Spain, the Recorder of Liverpool, Mr EG Hemmerde, KC, allowed an appeal by members of the crew of the North Shields steamer, Linaria. Fifteen had each been fined £2, and the other two, apprentices, discharged under the Probation Act, for refusing to sail the Linaria from Boston, USA.’ In an interesting aside, the report noted: ‘The captain, James Robinson, agreed that the men constituted the best crew he had had in 30 years.’

The Daily Worker gleefully declared on 15 June that ‘the Recorder showed himself more progressive than the leadership of the NUS’.

Not surprisingly the shipowners were unhappy with the verdict and the case ended up in the High Court in April 1938. Renowned socialist barrister DN Pritt defended the crew and Spike Robson defended himself. The appeal was thrown out and all costs awarded against the owners.

Robson, however, paid a price for his role in the strike and was blacklisted from the shipping industry. But with the outbreak of war in 1939, he found work on auxiliary Royal Navy ships crewed by merchant seamen. As a footnote, Robson was elected in 1947 to the NUS’s executive council, the first communist to serve in that capacity. He later became a mentor for Jim Slater, a future NUS general secretary, who was one of the key figures on the North East coast in the militant National Seamen’s Reform Movement of the 1950s and 60s.

Though an important legal victory was achieved, the story of the Linaria, when seafarers challenged what one historian has dubbed ‘an unholy alliance’ of government, shipowners and the men’s union, also answers a question which has been posed by labour historians: why was direct solidarity action by British maritime workers so limited during the Spanish Civil War? Robson and his shipmates took a unique stand – and in doing so fully exposed the implacable opposition such action faced.

For more information see: ‘The Spanish Civil War and the British Labour Movement’ by Tom Buchanan; ‘Union Man’ by Jack Jones; ‘The Spanish Civil War and the British Left’ by Lewis H Mates; ‘The ITF and the Spanish Civil War’ by Dieter Nelles in ‘The International Transport Workers’ Federation 1914-1945’ edited by Bob Reinalda; and Graham Stevenson’s online ‘Encyclopedia of Communist Biographies’ (


Posted on 17 November 2021.

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