The Thames, the lifeforce of London. In the late Victorian period it was a far busier river than today. Here at Southwark bridge, upriver from the docks, a seemingly countless number of tugs and large sail boats would ply their trade, much of their material pre-sorted at the docksides.
Map of London 1887 showing the dock area. Click to enlarge.
The ivory warehouse circa 1895. Those responsible for unloading the tusks and animal horns faced the threat of being stung by venomous insects lurking in the packing boxes; because of the nature of their work, these men were looked down on by other dock workers.
Unloading a ship at the docks circa 1885. If the men managed to complete the job quickly they could look forward to a bonus. It was for this reason that the foreman, if he needed casuals for any unloading, would select the toughest and most experienced men.
The strike was noted for the peaceful, almost carnivalesque protest marches. To the left we can see strikers dressed as Poseidon (or is it Old Father Thames?) and Britannia.
Top of the docks
In his introduction to Terry McCarthy’s The Great Dock Strike of 1889, Ron Todd, the then General Secretary of the British Transport and General Workers’
The strike’s greatest achievement, he wrote, was the unionisation of the casual worker and the rise in socialist awareness among the labouring classes.1
His words also seek to underline much of the popular mystique surrounding the strike. Its success was due to ‘the unskilled, the poorest, the underdogs, many of them desperate immigrants to the East of London from Irish famine*, [who] suddenly one summer, seemed to seize history and get themselves organised.’2
*If by ‘Irish famine’ Todd means the one suffered in Ireland during the 1840s then these workers would have been, shall we say, somewhat superannuated.
Before seeing how badly Todd misses the mark, it is important to chart the erratic rise of London’s docks and the working practises that were established there.
The East End has always been the key gateway for London’s trade. Until the early 1800s, however, the loading and unloading of supplies and goods was done primarily from wharves and jetties. It was costly and time consuming.
It was only with the opening of the East India docks in 1808 that London gained a large purpose-made and well-constructed zone for the mass movement of exports and imports. By the 1880s the East End boasted a significant number of sizeable docks and wharves, all with ample warehouse space.
The first major dock east of the Tower of London was St Katherine’s. This was followed by the London Docks, the Surrey Commercial Docks, West India Dock and East India Dock, and the Royal Albert Dock. Woolwich also contained a good number of large wharves.
The other docks were also facing tough times in the 1880s and the historian Stedman-Jones highlights two major causes for this. Firstly there was a freeing up of government trade restrictions on imports and exports, speeding up the transfer of goods. Secondly, there was the growth of an extensive and increasingly efficient railway network, which sped up delivery times from dockside to marketplace. Both factors had a knock-on effect: shipping firms no longer rented the dockside warehouses for lengthy periods, impacting the dock company profits and, in turn, their dividends.
To ensure the dividend was kept buoyant, the dock directors sought to make cost savings and began to increasingly rely on a growing pool of casual labour in the East End. With London’s burgeoning population, there were plenty of men willing to offer their labour at rock-bottom prices.
For several socialist historians, this use of casual labour was nothing more than exploitation and has often been viewed as the root cause of the strike. John Pudney in his book London Docks reflects this, writing: ‘The failure of private enterprise, forever locked in self-destructive competition, to make a good thing of the docks had inflicted such desperate conditions upon the human machinery of the port that the choice of the men lay only between revolt and extinction.’3
But here urban mythology and the benefit of hindsight have been melded with fact.
The core tenants of the strike demands, for example, are hardly a clarion call for class revolution; the strikers wanted a minimum hourly rate to just 6d an hour for all dockworkers, including casuals. For overtime they requested 8d an hour. If a ship was unloaded in quicker-than-expected time, they called for the reward – called ‘the share’, or ‘plus money’ – to be given out equally across the board and not just to the foremen and his preferred workers.4 There was no demand for an end to the practise of having the ‘call on’.*
*The ‘call on’ was the name given to the practise of casuals starting the day by waiting near the entrance to the docks, wharves and jetties hoping to be selected for work by the foremen. A great deal of ink and argument has been expended over the ‘call on’, as we shall see.
From top to bottom
Importantly, the group labelled the dockside aristocracy was based not just on wages, but also the type of work they undertook and whether it conformed to the dockside notions of respectability. Those responsible for unloading guano*, for example, received good wages – up to a sovereign a day – yet the nature of their job and the product they were responsible for placed them at the bottom of dockworker society.
*Or bird shit, to use the Anglo Saxon.
At the top were the stevedores, the men in charge of loading outbound ships. Their work demanded ‘great skill in trimming the vessel to keep its balance’.5 By the 1880s, the stevedores already had their own powerful and well-respected union.
When the strike of 1889 occurred it became vital to convince the stevedores and
Below the stevedores, watermen and lightermen, Ed Gilnert writes, came the ‘interminable levels of skilled workers’, such as the ‘corn porters, deal porters, coopers, riggers, those who specialised in short-stay docks, tallymen, warehousemen, pilers, baulkers and blenders.’7
Gilnert continues: ‘At the bottom of the heap, and reviled by all the other waterside workers, were the ordinary dockers’.8 But here, Gilnert adds, was a further split between the regulars and the casuals, with the latter sub-dividing themselves into their own complex hierarchy.
Top of the casual ‘tree’ were the frequently-chosen workers, followed by the infrequently employed, who in turn considered themselves superior to those casuals involved in ‘unloading phosphates, asbestos or lampblack’.9
All of these men looked down on the casuals ‘who worked in the deep-freeze ships, who needed to wear sacking on their feet to stave off frostbite, and those who unloaded the horns of African animals, knowing that the opening of the boxes would release insects with a venomous bite.’10 Again we note that it is the type of job that determined dockside ranking.
Those in charge of loading and or lugging coal, the ‘coalies’, were also towards the bottom of the social ladder and often – their bodies covered in dirt – considered figures of fun. Jo Anderson in his book Anchor and Hope quotes a bargeman, Harry Thomas Harris, who admitted teasing the coalies. ‘If near enough to us,’ Harris wrote, ‘we would whistle, “Whist, here come the bogey-man!” but all coalies then appeared aged and repartee was not their strong point.’11
The casuals, as the name suggests, were men employed on a temporary basis – sometimes hourly.
At the start of each working day, the foreman was charged to find a set number of workers to help the regulars at the ‘call on’. In describing the foreman’s methods of choosing casuals, Gilnert takes the socialist/traditionalist line, stressing that they wielded ‘tyrannical power’12, picking family and friends first, followed by those who had bribed them.
But it should be remembered that the foreman would only select those he knew certain to be quick, tough and likely to finish the job as early as possible so ‘the share’ could be secured.
Whatever the likely causes behind their chosen status, the favoured casuals were known as ‘royals’ – the dockside aristocrats of the casual workforce.
If more men than the favoured royals were needed for a job, the foreman would simply select the toughest looking. Often his method in doing so was to throw brass tickets – the guarantee of entry and work – into the waiting crowds and watch the men would scrabble and fight to pick them up. The toughest and, therefore, the best suited for the work ahead would grab and secure a winning place. Those who had missed out would have to wait until next time.
A casual victory
The docks, then, had their own culture and complex social hierarchy. However, it should be stressed that the numbers involved were not that large even for the time. Charles Booth in his extensive analysis of
That said, thousands more men worked on the numerous
In 1872 the dockers and a number of unions had tried to flex their muscles and went on strike. They obtained 5d an hour – up from 4d – and an overtime rate of 6d.14 For the casual, the victory was a hollow one: the dock companies now made even greater use of the ‘hire-by-the-hour’ method. This left many casuals working shorter stretches and therefore substantially out of pocket.15
In the meantime, the dockside aristocracy increased its power by making sure that those jobs now needing to be filled with permanent employees – ones that had previously been done by using sets of semi-skilled casuals – came under the control of their unions.
Tillet at the tiller
In the 1880s only a limited number of small unions were open to casuals. One of the more successful ones was The Tea Operatives and General Labourers Association. It was founded and steered by Ben Tillett, a man most historical accounts stress as instrumental in the dock strike’s successful organisation.
What is downplayed or overlooked in many traditionalist accounts was Tillett’s position at that time. He was busy fighting a power struggle for the support of the casuals and, importantly, for the blessing of the dockside aristocracy. In spring
So could ulterior motives have been behind Tillett’s hard work and energy during the strike? Could there have been an element of self-aggrandisement behind his actions and vociferous leadership? These are questions many traditionalists, frequently keen to emphasise the importance of union leaders as beacons of the labour movement, have avoided engaging with.
It is important to note that the dock strike immediately followed two other successful industrial actions: the first by the match girls working in Bryant & May in 1888 and the second by gas workers at the Beckton works earlier in 1889.
The spark for the dock strike came on
Two days later, Tillett used the incident as a cassus belli and, with the royals behind him, was able to declare action against the dock companies.
Having declared a strike, Tillett’s first move was to seek the Stevedores Union’s support. Without the top of the dockside aristocracy on his side – for they were the ones with real clout with the dock managers – a strike by the casuals would be dead in the water, lacking a strong negotiating position and the funds that the stevedores could muster.
That Tillett secured their help was a major achievement and it was not long before all dock labour was withdrawn and support from other large, non-dockside unions secured, including the Engineering Union. Their leader, John Burns, was a key figure and had gained great kudos in the eyes of the working classes for his role in the
Years later Tillett downplayed Burns’ influence – and boosting his own in doing so – by writing that the leader of the Engineering Union had initially scoffed at the notion of an all-inclusive dock workers’ union and that he had only joined strike when it ‘was well underway’.18
Within a few weeks, thousands of the
Many commentators view these ‘sympathy strikers’ as evidence of increased class consciousness. But it could be argued that their support was a cynical effort to secure their own labour demands while availing themselves on the aid and goodwill of the dockworkers.
There may well have been a number of freeloaders: present for no other purpose than to claim free food.
It seems the dock strike leaders were aware of this element and, regardless of its actual size, made use of it as a means to swat away dissent from the rank and file and maintain their authority.
For example, Ben Tillett recorded being heckled when announcing the settlement of the strike to a mass meeting on September 16. The dock companies had just agreed to pay a wage increase of 6d an hour, to come into effect by early November. Those who complained about the deal, Tillett exclaimed, were ‘lazy loafers, who foisted themselves on the funds, sponging on subscriptions’.20
After four long weeks of strike, the dockers had won the right to 6d per hour plus a little extra overtime pay for the casual labourer. That they did this was due in no small part to a substantial funds received from Australian supporters – totalling over £30,000 – which had allowed them to continue just as the striker’s coffers were close to empty.
Another key reason for the strike’s success was effective picketing and the halting of replacement workers – called blacklegs – from carrying out their jobs. Most of the strike leaders and traditionalist historians emphasised the peaceful nature of the pickets, stressing the calm and almost carnival-like atmosphere of the strike’s processions, marches and massed meetings. Here was another proof, they argued, of increased class consciousness and over-arching class respectability.
In her work on the Dock Strike of 1889, Joan Ballhatchet decided to investigate police reports from the time in an effort to discover whether these assertions were correct. A number of violent incidents were recorded, including the beating of a blackleg and then of a policemen who had attempted to intervene.21 Posters threatening blacklegs with ‘dire consequences’ were also recorded.22
More serious, however, was the interference by strikers with ships belonging to other nations. On at least two occasions, striking dock workers boarded foreign vessels and attempted to interrupt the work being carried out on them.23
Despite this, Ballhatchet illustrates that there was, in the main, a deep respect for law and order. But was this due to dockside respectability or from fear of authority?
The police and army’s smashing of the 1887 London protests was still fresh in the striker’s minds and they were amply aware of the wrath they could incur if the marchers went too far or rioted. As long as the working classes were seen to behave in respectfully – whether out of good citizenship, a fear of reprisals, or both – then all would be well and the police would not interfere.
Norwood the leading dock company owner was well aware of this and vigorously complained to the head of the Metropolitan CID, James Monro, making calls for the police to break up the pickets regardless of whether they were breaking the law or not. He was politely but firmly rebuffed.24
New start, old platform
With the strike seemingly a great success, the leaders soon went their separate ways.
Tillett, his followers, and many others besides, attempted to forge what have been called ‘new unions’ – unions that were inclusive and willing to represent all labourers, skilled and unskilled. The Tea Operatives was re-branded, becoming the Dockers’
In his conclusion, McCarthy writes: ‘The dock strike brought into being a new kind of socialism, a popular and practical type of socialism.’
The historian R B Oram concurs, writing: ‘The strike laid the foundations for a power that now enables the dockers to press, at frequent intervals, not for the homely tanner [6d per hour], but for a “substantial increase”.’26
Unfortunately, these narratives paper over a number of major cracks.
Others examining the strike contend that far from finding their lives improved, the casuals faced far greater restrictions in gaining work and, eventually, found that there was a sharp fall in the level of work available at the ‘call on’. Certainly the less physically able were now at a considerable disadvantage: medical inspection, for example, was increasingly used after 1889 as a lawful means to turn away the weaker casual.27
Ballhatchet writes: ‘The “fitter” dockers would benefit by more regular work and better pay but the “lower-class casual” would suffer.’28 Without work, the casual’s estimation in the eyes of his community sank even lower.
For the dockside aristocracy, on the other hand, the strike had been a major fillip to their control and influence of dock work and the dockside community’s notion of respectability.
Although the unions had been renamed and language calling for greater ‘inclusiveness’ was bounded about more, the dockside aristocrat remained in control. And it was to remain this way until the
1) Terry McCarthy (ed.), The Great Dock Strike, 1889, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989), p.8
2) Ibid, p.7
3) J Pudney, London Docks, (Thames and Hudson, 1975), p.116
4) McCarthy (ed.), The Great Dock Strike, 1889, p.136
5) J Anderson, Anchor and Hope, (Hodder & Stoughton, 1980), p.70
6) McCarthy (ed.), The Great Dock Strike, 1889, p.40
7) Ed Gilnert, East End Chronicles: Three Hundred Years of Mystery and Mayhem, (Penguin Books, 2006), p.29
10) Ibid, p.30
11) Anderson, Anchor and Hope, p.71
12) Gilnert, East End Chronicles: Three Hundred Years of Mystery and Mayhem, p.31
13) McCarthy (ed.), The Great Dock Strike, 1889, pp.42-43
14) Steadman-Jones, Outcast
16) Pudney, London Docks, p.119
18) McCarthy (ed.), The Great Dock Strike, 1889, p.99
19) Ibid, p.105
20) Ibid, p.225
21) Ibid, p.194
22) Joan Ballhatchet, ‘The police and the London Dock Strike of
23) Ibid, p.58
24) Ibid, p.61
25) Pudney, London Docks, p.126
26) R. B. Oram, ‘The Great Strike of
27) Palmer, The
28) Ballhatchet, ‘The police and the London Dock Strike of
29) Pudney, London Docks, p.120
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Ackroyd, P. Illustrated
Anderson, J. Anchor and Hope (Hodder & Stoughton, 1980)
Ballhatchet, Joan, ‘The police and the London Dock Strike of
Betjeman, J., Victorian & Edwardian
Crossland, J., ‘The dock strike that succeeded in
Duffy, A. E. P., ‘New Unionism in