Top of the docks

Top of the Docks

In his introduction to Terry McCarthy’s 1989 work The Great Dock Strike of 1889, Ron Todd, then-General Secretary of the British Transport and General Workers’ Union, trumpeted a traditionalist view of the industrial action that had occurred 100 years beforehand. He argued that its foremost achievements were twofold: the unionisation of casual workers and spurring the rise of class consciousness.1 The strike’s 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 Todd’s thoughts illustrate much of the popular mystique that surrounds the London Dock strike of 1889 and the muddled understanding of its causes and outcomes.

*If Todd is referring to the Irish famine of the 1840s then these dock workers would have been, shall we say, somewhat superannuated.

This short essay will start by tracking the erratic rise of London’s docklands and the working practises and hierarchies established there before the strike erupted. We will then assess the strike’s progress and the personalities involved, asking what their motivations might have been. Finally, we will conclude that, instead of being a prime example of collective socialism and heightened class consciousness, the dock strike of 1889 was a melange of self-interests, some conflicting and some complimentary. We will also note that, instead of helping the casual labourer, the strike’s most tangible long-term result was to further striate the docklands’ hierarchy and to bolster the power of its various labour aristocracies.


London’s gateway

The East End has always been the gateway for London’s international trade and commerce. However, the loading and unloading of goods and commodities until the early 1800s was primarily conducted at small-scale wharves and jetties. It was a costly and time-consuming process. With the opening of the East India docks in 1808, London finally gained a large, purpose-made zone for the massed processing of imports and exports. By the 1880s, the East End boasted a significant number of sizeable docks and wharves, all with ample warehouse space. Walking from the Tower of London eastwards, one would first arrive at St Katherine’s dock. This was followed by the London Docks; the Surrey Commercial Docks; West India Dock and East India Dock; and then the Royal Albert Dock. In addition, Woolwich, on the south bank of the Thames, was the site of several large wharves. The gigantic Tilbury Docks, which had opened 21 miles downstream in 1886, failed to build up the necessary trade and had bankrupted its owners, the East and West India Dock Company, by 1888.


The other docks were also facing tough times in the 1880s, with Stedman-Jones highlighting two primary causes for this. Firstly, there was a freeing up of government restrictions on imports and exports, which reduced transfer delays on goods. Secondly, there was the growth of an extensive and increasingly efficient railway network, which sped up delivery times from dockside to end-users. Both factors meant that shipping companies no longer rented the dockside warehouses for lengthy periods, which dented profits and, in turn, put pressure on the level of dividends available for investors. This was important as attracting and keeping investors ensured monies flowed into company treasuries, while also bolstering wider market confidence.

To ensure the dividend was kept buoyant, the directors sought cost savings and increasingly utilised the 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 rates. True, these ‘casuals’ might not have had all the necessary skills, but their inefficiencies were easily corrected and insignificant compared with the savings accrued and the wider margins created by using them. For many socialist historians, this use of casual labour was an example of gross exploitation and the strike’s root cause. John Pudney makes this argument in his work London Docks. ‘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 Pudney’s arguments flounder when contrasted with the strikers’ demands, which were hardly a clarion call for broad industrial action, let alone illustrative of a ‘strike or die’ situation. The strikers wanted an increase in the minimum hourly rate to 6d (6 pence), up from 5d, for all dockworkers, including the casuals. They requested 8d an hour for overtime and wanted the ‘share’ or ‘plus money’ – the reward for unloading of a ship with time to spare – to be distributed equally and not just among the foremen and his preferred workers.4 In addition, there was no demand to end the ‘call on’, whereby casuals started their day waiting at the entrances of docks, wharves and jetties, hoping to be selected by the foremen for work.


Top to bottom

London’s docks had long been a place of difference and division before the strike of 1889, and there were plenty of tensions expressed between the various groups that worked there. Indeed, an almost byzantine level of hierarchy prevailed among the men who lived and worked along the Thames. Importantly, notions of superiority and respectability among the dockers were based not just on wages but also the type of employment a man performed. For example, those responsible for unloading guano* received good wages of up to a sovereign a day, but the nature of their job and the product they unloaded placed them almost at the bottom of dockland society.

*Bird droppings, which was was primarily used as fertilizer.


At the top of the pyramid 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 Thus they were essential to both the dock companies and shipping companies. Reflecting their importance, they had already established an influential union by the 1880s. The support of the Stevedores’ Union during the dock strike of 1889 was to prove vital, as was the backing of the Thames watermen and lightermen, two other groups towards the top of dockside hierarchy. Writing the first history of the dock strike published just before the close of 1889, H L Smith and V Nash noted that these men had been ‘crucial to the outcome of the strike’.6 

Historian Ed Gilnert noted that below the stevedores, watermen and lightermen were 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 He continued: ‘At the bottom of the heap, and reviled by all the other waterside workers, were the ordinary dockers’.8 But here there was a further split between the regulars and the casuals, with the latter sub-dividing themselves into their own hierarchy.


Top of the casual tree were the frequently-chosen workers, followed by the irregularly employed, who in turn considered themselves superior to any casual involved in ‘unloading phosphates, asbestos or lampblack’.9 Beneath them were 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 Those in charge of loading and or lugging coal, the ‘coalies’, were also towards the bottom rungs of the social ladder. Their bodies were covered in coal dust, which could make them figures of fun. In her work on the docks, Jo Anderson quoted a bargeman, Harry Thomas Harris, who admitted to 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

Survival of the fittest

Foremen were usually instructed to find a set number of casual workers to help the regulars at the start of each working day. This was done at the call on. In describing the foreman’s methods of choosing casuals, Gilnert traces a socialist/traditionalist narrative, stressing that they wielded ‘tyrannical power’,12 picking family and friends first, followed by those who had bribed them. But did they? While nepotism and back scratching almost certainly occurred, one wonders at its prevalence. Historians who are quick to condemn these foremen often forget that it was their duty to select the toughest men – those who would be able to complete the job quickly and win the reward for early completion, representing sums far higher than petty bribes.

Whatever the likely causes behind their chosen status, the favoured casuals were known as ‘royals’, the aristocrats of the casual workforce. If more men than the royals were needed, then the foreman would select the fittest-looking from among the other casuals. One method of doing this, albeit rarely employed, was to throw brass tickets – the guarantee of entry and work – into the waiting crowds and watch the men scrabble and fight to pick them up. The toughest and best suited for the work ahead would secure a winning place by using their brawn and not their brains. Those who missed out would have to wait until next time.


It is worth pausing here to note the numbers employed in dock work. In his extensive analysis of London’s East End in the late 19th Century, Charles Booth computed that the main dock companies – the West and East India Docks, the London and St. Katherine Docks and the Millwall Docks – employed, on average, 8,087 men on the best working days.13 There were also those who worked on the Thames wharves and jetties independent of the major dock companies. In addition, thousands of jobs were indirectly dependent on the dock workers, such as publicans, the costermongers or local shopkeepers.

Meanwhile, the dock strike of 1889 was not a unique event; the dock workers and several unions had already flexed their muscles in 1872, when their demand for a pay rise was successfully achieved. The workforce was awarded 5d an hour, up from 4d, and granted an overtime rate of 6d.14 But the victory was a hollow one for the casuals as the dock companies responded by making greater use of ‘hire-by-the-hour’.* It meant many casuals were employed for shorter stretches, leaving them substantially out of pocket.15 

*Similar to the use of zero-hour contracts now increasingly prevalent in modern Britain.

Only a limited number of small unions were open to casuals during the 1880s, including the Tea Operatives and General Labourers Association. It had been founded by Ben Tillett, who is considered by most historical accounts as instrumental in the 1889 strike’s success. However, his position at that time is often downplayed or overlooked in many traditional accounts; Tillett was busy fighting a power struggle for the support of the casuals. In spring 1889, a tugman ‘named Harris’16 had set up a rival union and was intent on challenging Tillett. On 12 August 1889, Harris had led a band of followers into Tillett’s territory, trying to poach supporters. Tillett retaliated on 14 August, the day most historians mark as the start of the dock strike, by holding a meeting in Canning Town to persuade the casual royals to side with him. He succeeded in this, which marked ‘the beginning of the end of Harris’ union’, according to Pudney.17  So could ulterior motives – the desire to retain and then build-up his powerbase – spurred Tillett’s hard work and energy during the strike? This is a question many in the traditional camp, in their excitement to emphasise the importance of union personalities, have often avoided engaging with.

It is also important to note the dock strike of 1889 immediately followed two other successful industrial actions in the area. The first had been undertaken by the match girls working in Bryant & May in 1888,* the second by gas workers at the Beckton works earlier in 1889. The dock workers would have followed the progress of these strikes carefully – often as friends, relatives or acquaintances – and the victories achieved in both would have undoubtedly provided food for thought for dock workers. Indeed, when one considers the wider industrial tensions felt across the East End in these years, a dock strike would have almost certainly started with or without Tillett’s presence.

*Their working conditions were atrocious and the white phosphorous vapour often led to ‘phossy-jaw’, necrosis of the jawbone that could lead to brain damage and an agonising death.

The spark

Most commentators at the time and historians since have agreed the strike's spark came on 12 August, when a row erupted during the unloading of the Lady Armstrong. The casual labourers suddenly demanded 6d an hour for their efforts, which the dock company promptly rejected. The casuals then withdrew their labour, leading to an impasse. Tillett used the incident as his cassus belli against the dock companies and, as we have seen, also as a means to outmanoeuvre Harris. Two days later, with the casual royals behind him, he was able to declare a strike.

Tellingly, his first move was not to organise pickets or demonstrations but to seek support from the Stevedores’ Union. Tilett knew they were the ones who possessed real clout with dock management, the shipping companies and other dockside groups. On their own, Tilett and his casuals had little leverage; most of the dock work could continue without the casuals, while the dock companies could easily find others to replace those who had gone on strike. In addition, the treasury available to the casuals was lacklustre compared with the one the stevedores possessed. Money was an important factor as emergency funds would be needed for the strike to have staying power.

That Tillett secured the stevedores’ assistance was probably his greatest achievement during the strike. By doing so he ensured other dockside labour felt confident to join the strike and walk-out in solidarity. Support from non-dockside unions was also secured, including the powerful Engineering Union. Their leader, John Burns, was a well-known figure in the British labour movement, his status solidified after he took a lead role in the London protests of 1886 and 1887. Years later, Tillett attempted to downplay Burns’ influence and boost his own in the process, claiming Burns had initially scoffed at the notion of an all-inclusive dockworkers’ union and that he had only joined strike when it ‘was well underway’.18 


Dock company management were initially surprised by the level of support the casuals had mustered. Indeed, it seemed thousands of others in the East End were striking in solidarity within a matter of days. This added to the numbers participating in the near-daily protest marches that journeyed into the City of London, and which were noted for their peaceful and almost carnival-like nature. The Times, which closely followed the strike’s progress, estimated a Hyde Park meeting of strikers and supporters on 26 August numbered around 100,000.19 Much debate surrounds the role of ‘sympathy strikers’, with several historians arguing their presence was evidence of widening class consciousness. Alternatively, it could be argued they were piggybacking on the dock strike, allowing them to advance their own labour demands while availing themselves of the dockworkers’ aid and goodwill.

Freeloaders were certainly present, joining the cause for no other reason than to claim food and poverty assistance. Unfortunately, the size of this problem cannot be computed with any degree of accuracy, except to note it must have problematic enough for labour leaders to use the accusation of freeloading as a means to swat away dissent. For example, Tillett recorded being heckled when announcing the strike’s settlement at a mass meeting on 16 September, the dock companies having just agreed to 6d an hour effective early November. Those who complained about the deal, Tillett declared, were ‘lazy loafers, who foisted themselves on the funds, sponging on subscriptions’.20

The strike lasted four weeks. As well as the increase to 6d per hour offer, some extra overtime pay would be set aside for the casual labourer. The strikers were able to hold out after receiving more than £30,000 in funds sent by Australian supporters. Indeed, the arrival of this cash came at the moment their coffers were almost empty. Also central to success was effective picketing and the halting of replacement workers, called blacklegs, from entering the docks. Most of the strike leaders and traditionalist historians have emphasised the peaceful nature of the pickets, with some historians also highlighting the, as further proof of labour solidarity and working-class respectability.

In her work on the strike, Joan Ballhatchet decided to test these claims by assessing internal police reports from the time. Several violent incidents were recorded, including the beating of a blackleg and a policeman who attempted to intervene.21 Posters threatening blacklegs with ‘dire consequences’ were also noted.22 More serious was interference with ships belonging to other nations. Strikers boarded foreign vessels in an effort to interrupt the work being carried out on at least two occasions,23 a breach of maritime and sovereignty laws that could have had serious diplomatic implications. Nonetheless, Ballhatchet successfully illustrated that there was, in the main, widespread respect for law and order.

But was this order maintained because of dockside respectability or because of fear? The police and army’s smashing of the 1887 London protests was fresh in the minds of almost all Londoners, and the strikers would have been keenly aware that a similar response might be unleashed if they became disorderly or rioted. As long as the strikers behaved with decorum – whether this was due to working-class respectability, fear of reprisals, or both – then all would be well. Norwood, a leading dock company owner, was well aware of this and vigorously complained to the head of the Metropolitan CID, James Monro. He made repeated calls for the police to break up the pickets, regardless of whether they were breaking the law or not, and he was politely but firmly rebuffed.24

With the settlement declared a great success, the leaders soon went their separate ways. Tillett, his followers and others attempted to forge what have been called ‘new unions’ – unions that were inclusive and willing to represent all labourers, both skilled and unskilled. Reflecting this, the Tea Operatives was re-branded, becoming the Dockers’ Union and rapidly attained a membership of 18,000.25 In his conclusion, McCarthy wrote: ‘The dock strike brought into being a new kind of socialism, a popular and practical type of socialism.’ R.B Oram concurred: ‘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 

Others contend this analysis fails to consider for the fault lines that developed soon afterwards. For example, the casuals found the dock companies increased the range of restrictions to turn away those they deemed superfluous. This included the increased use of medical inspections as a means to turn away weaker casuals without incurring union ire. Not that the established unions minded.27 As Ballhatchet noted: ‘The “fitter” dockers would benefit by more regular work and better pay, but the “lower-class casual” would suffer.’28 It was a re-run of 1872, albeit in an accelerated form, and the casual’s estimation in the eyes of his community sank lower as a result. For the dockside aristocracy, the strike proved another important fillip for their influence and, while the casual unions might have been renamed and rebranded, there was no doubt who really where the real power rested and who was really top of the docks.


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

8) Idem

9) Idem

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 London: A study in the relationship between classes in Victorian Society, p.120

15) Idem

16) Pudney, London Docks, p.119

17) Idem

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 1889’, History Workshop, 32 (Autumn, 1991), p.57

23) Ibid, p.58

24) Ibid, p.61

25) Pudney, London Docks, p.126

26) R. B. Oram, ‘The Great Strike of 1889’, History Today, 14:8, (August, 1964), p.541

27) Palmer, The East End: four centuries of London life, p.98

28) Ballhatchet, ‘The police and the London Dock Strike of 1889’, p.67



Primary sources:

Kirwan, Daniel Joseph, Palace & Hovel, first published in 1870 (Aberland-Schuman, 1963)

Mayhew, H., London and the London poor, Vol III (Dover Publications, 1968)

Secondary sources:

Ackroyd, P. Illustrated London Chatto & Windus, 2003

Anderson, J. Anchor and Hope (Hodder & Stoughton, 1980)

Ballhatchet, Joan, ‘The police and the London Dock Strike of 1889’, History Workshop, 32 (Autumn, 1991), pp.54-68

Betjeman, J., Victorian & Edwardian London in Old Photographs (Batsford, 1969)

Crossland, J., ‘The dock strike that succeeded in 1889’, History Today, 39:10 (October, 1989), pp 9-10

Duffy, A. E. P., ‘New Unionism in Britain, 1889-1890: A Reappraisal’, in The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol.14, No.2. (1961), pp.306-319

Fried, A. & Elman, R. M., (eds.), Charles Booth’s London (Penguin, 1971)

Gilnert, Ed, East End Chronicles: Three Hundred Years of Mystery and Mayhem (Penguin Books, 2006)

Hobsbawm, E. J., Labouring Men (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972)

Linnane, F., London: The Wicked City (Robson Books, 2003)

McCarthy, T. (ed.), The Great Dock Strike, 1889 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989)

O’Neill, G., The Good Old Days (Viking, 2006)

Oram, R. B., ‘The Great Strike of 1889’, History Today, 14:8, (August, 1964), pp.532-541

Palmer, A., The East End: four centuries of London life (John Murray, 2004)

Pelling, H., Popular Politics & Society in Late Victorian Britain (Macmillan Press, 1979)

Porter, Roy, London: A Social History (Penguin, 2000)

Pudney, J., London Docks (Thames and Hudson, 1975)

Steadman-Jones, Gareth, Outcast London: A study in the relationship between classes in Victorian Society (Peregrine Books, 1976)

Thompson, F. Michael, The Rise of Respectable Society 1830-1900 (Fontana Press, 1988)

Walkowitz, Judith R., City of Dreadful Delight (Virago Book, 1998)

Webb, S. & Webb B., English Poor Law Policy (Longmans, Green and Co, 1910)

Webb, S. & Webb B., Industrial Democracy (Longmans, Green and Co, 1926)

Zietlin, Jonathan, ‘From Labour History to the History of Industrial Relations’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser. XL, 2 (1987), pp.159-189