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Redressing inequality — 125 years ago

The Great London Dock Strike

Christopher Sheil

The Great London Dock Strike paralysed the Thames between 14 August and 15 September 1889, 125 years ago this month. The strike was sparked by a payment known as the ‘plus’, a bonus calculated by tonnage that the workers couldn’t verify and by which they suspected they were being cheated. When the issue flared, the discontent ran to other grievances that exploded into the port-wide strike.

By way of background, the strike was based in the enclosed London docks, huge structures that dated from the beginning of the 19th century. Capital had of course impinged on the watersiders in the forms of more and new goods needing to be handled, but the construction of the docks that swept the ships from the overcrowded Thames was the first major shock that they felt from the Industrial Revolution, for this dramatically altered power relations. The first of the docks opened in 1802, the second in 1803, a third in 1805, another in 1807, dooming the fellowships and brotherhoods that had organised watersiders from time out of mind to slip in the course of the 19th century ever further down the slope to extinction.

The old societies were not accepted by the dock companies. Initially, the companies accommodated them, or at least followed custom in employing permanent workers supplemented by preferred casuals, but these arrangements began to break down following the de-regulation of entry into the industry in the 1830s, to the point where the employers basically did what they liked from the 1850s. A surplus of facilities was exacerbated by the deregulation of warehousing and the progressive outmoding of the original docks in the transition to steamships. Meanwhile, London’s East End staples declined in favour of industries characterised by low and irregular wages, and influxes of migrant and rural labourers were drawn to the docks by the hope of work. The terms ‘unemployment’ and ‘the unemployed’ first came into common parlance during the 1880s, and were associated above all with the casual labourers on the London docks.

By 1889, dockside employment had largely degenerated into a system of contractors hiring from swollen pools of casuals on an hourly basis. The logic led to the companies offering insufficient work to enable regular livelihoods, but sufficient to prevent the men from straying elsewhere, a recipe for tyranny in hiring and firing. One of the oldest docks, the 56 hectare London Dock, for example, had no fewer than 250 contractors, hiring workers under conditions that not only perpetuated chronic insecurity but fostered all kinds of dangers, humiliation, degradation and corruption, and some of the most lurid literature in the history of labour.

The strike’s grandeur owed much to its setting in the world’s mightiest port. It began on 14 August with the Tea Operatives and General Labourers’ Association, a lonely union outpost with 300 or so members that had been established by Ben Tillett on the East and West India docks in 1887. An ex-seafarer of uncommon leadership ability; Tillett demanded the end of the contracting and plus systems; a pay rise from five to six pence an hour, with eight pence for overtime; a minimum four hours pay; and a limit on the pick-up times to twice daily. By 22 August the entire port had stopped. Tillett was joined by Tom Mann and John Burns in the leadership. The most celebrated feature was a daily procession of the dockers through the city to solicit support that grew ever larger and more carnivalesque. The leaders placed the emphasis on self-respect, discipline and patience, with the remarkable result that middle-class Londoners began to back ‘the poor devils who were fighting with pluck, good humour and order against overwhelming odds’.

The strike came to a storybook finish. The employers refused to discuss the union’s claims and imported several thousand scabs, offering permanent jobs at ₤1 per week. After a fortnight, defeat by starvation loomed. Tantamount to a last throw, on Thursday 29 August the leadership called for a general London strike on the following Monday. On the same day, as it happened, news arrived that the Brisbane Wharf Labourers’ Union had voted to donate ₤150. The Australian funds made the difference, for the ship-owners and the competing wharf operators were beginning to split from the dock companies and the extra resources put the result beyond doubt. The Brisbane Wharf Labourers and Seamen’s unions sent £250, followed by £500 from the Sydney Wharf Labourers with a promise of more to come, which it did, in a torrent. About £36,000 was raised in appeals throughout Australia. The general strike was called off, the pickets — some 3000 at the height — were fortified, and London’s Lord Mayor and Roman Catholic Cardinal took the lead in mediating a negotiated settlement. The dockers won their claims, staged a victory march to Hyde Park on Sunday 15 September, and returned to work on the Monday.

From this triumph rose the Dock, Wharf, River and General Labourers’ Union, with around 25,000 members led by Ben Tillett as secretary and Tom Mann as president. The union stretched across seven districts along the river, subdivided into 65 branches by locality, trade or employer. Most were ‘dockers’, a sobriquet Tillet believed he effectively invented, but there were also branches in the warehouses, on the wharves (which mainly serviced the coastal trade), and in the cement and paper industries, plus grain, timber and brewery workers, fish porters, fruit porters, and other specialists. Across the river now stood the South Side Labourers’ Protection League with 5000 members in 18 branches based in the old societies of grain and timber workers, but also including warehousemen, wharf labourers, and others. There were two stevedores’ unions, the Amalgamated Stevedores and the United Stevedores, upstream and downstream respectively. And then there was the Coal Porters Winchmen’s Association, the Amalgamated Society of Engine Drivers and Firemen, the Amalgamated Protective Union of Engine Drivers, Crane Drivers, Hydraulic and Boiler Attendants, the Thames Steamship Workers, the Ballast Heavers’ Society, the Amalgamated Society of Watermen and Lightermen, and the Tugboatmen’s Union. In short, the imperial artery was fully charged with trade unions. However far the antecedents stretched back, however many forerunners we can find in Britain and elsewhere, to step over London’s 1889 dock strike is to step into a world where no one could deny the presence of maritime unionism.

The 1889 strike was not great because it was the first by labourers, and it was scarcely the first case of collective bargaining on the waterfront. Rather, the strike was a great social event with a clean cut victor that embedded the idea of maritime unionism and labourers’ unions generally within Britain’s collective consciousness, and to a fair extent within international consciousness. It thereby came to symbolise the ‘new unionism’, a movement that took trade unions decisively across the threshold from their base among the craftsmen in large industries to a cause that aimed to embrace all wage-earners, the skilled, the semi-skilled, the unskilled, and both male and female workers. ‘If Marx had lived to witness this!’ wrote Engels:

If these poor downtrodden men, the dregs of the proletariat, these odds and ends of all trades, fighting every morning at the dock gates for an engagement, if they can combine, and terrify by their resolution the mighty Dock Companies, truly then we not despair of any section of the working class.

Branches of the Dockers’ Union were quickly established in the provincial ports. Separate unions were formed by watersiders in Liverpool, Glasgow and Belfast, and those in Newcastle and environs formed a general union. Besides these and other new unions, including Britain’s first national union of seafarers, the older unions were reinvigorated, so that the membership rose from 675,000 in 1887 to almost 1.6 million in 1892, about 20 per cent of adult male workers, sufficient to constitute large majorities in the places where they were concentrated. For Sidney and Beatrice Webb — writing The history of trade unionism four years after the event — the dock strike ‘changed the whole face of the trade union world’.

The ‘new unions’ created a wave of militancy, such that the dock strike became the most celebrated of some 2400 stoppages in 1889 and 1990. Of more profound socio-historical significance, the formal institution of trade unionism among labourers broadened the social base of the movement. The phenomenon was both a reflection of and a response to the evolution or ongoing revolution of production, which effectively raised the standing of labourers. Burns and Mann are exemplars in that they were both engineers and leading advocates of closer working-class co-operation. ‘There has been a lot of cant talked about the “new” and the “old” trade unionism’, Burns said in a speech in 1890: ‘The difference between them, if any, is entirely due to the fact that the “new” see that labour-saving machinery is reducing the previously skilled to the level of unskilled labour, and they must in their own interest, be less exclusive than hitherto.’ Effectively, the alliance between the craftsmen and labourers symbolised by the strike reconstituted the labour movement, forging the base among the employees in the occupations and industries that we now think of as the ‘traditional working class’.

The 1889 leaders also embodied the more active political engagement of the new unions, as distinct from politics being an optional trade union extra, or banned under the old ‘no politics’ rule. The mission to secure precarious livelihoods implied aspirations to improve the lot of all workers. As franchises became universal, mass unionism now became a serious political force, and the question was not only whether the labour movement would meet electoral success, but whether the demand for an equitable society could be contained within constitutional politics. Burns and Mann had begun their political careers as leaders of the (Marxist) Social Democratic Federation in the 1880s, and had spent a good deal of time in propaganda work down at the docks. After the strike, Burns was elected as a Liberal Party MP in 1892 and would become a minister in the Asquith government in 1914. Tillett and Mann became founders of the (heterogeneous socialist) Independent Labour Party in 1893, and Tillett would be elected as a (mainstream) Labour Party MP in 1917, while Mann would join the British Socialist Party and become a founding member of the Communist Party in 1920. Here of course we have a parallel with the Australian trade union movement’s turn to politics after our own great strike in 1890, and there is more than coincidence in the fact that maritime labour was central in both cases, not only in the genesis of the respective two-party systems but across the spectrum. Mann was engaged in both countries, for he moved to Australia between 1901 and 1910, where he became an organiser for the Labor Party and then founded the Victorian Socialist Party. The various trajectories can be read as the menu of trade union politics that has more or less come down to us today. The Webbs acknowledged the wider horizon in amending their definition of a ‘trade union’ in the 1920 edition of their history by substituting the aim of improving ‘employment conditions’ with that of improving ‘working lives’.

If the 1889 strike was the seminal event in the making of modern maritime unionism, the middle class also played a formative role. It is to be recalled that this was still one of history’s most unequal societies. Remembered as la belle époque, the upper class — the richest 10 per cent — owned 90 per cent of Britain’s wealth and claimed almost 50 per cent of the national income; while the dockers in London’s East End belonged to the city’s hellacious poverty-stricken underworld. William Morris bluntly suggested that the only reason the streets weren’t cleared by the bludgeon and the bayonet was that the ‘men are too many and too desperate, and their miserable condition has really impressed itself on a large part of the non-political middle classes’. Prior to the strike, the public conscience had been much exercised over the ‘condition of the people’, so that the marching dockers were cheered on by London’s stockbrokers, and their stand was welcomed by the middle class more generally as a sign of progress in lifting the workers out of the dangerous underclass. Gareth Stedman Jones has argued that this amounted to a further development of liberal thought: ‘Trade unions were no longer seen as harbingers of class conflict or even fetters upon the market, but principally as agents of self-help and moral improvement.’ In this view, trade unions were instruments of social policy and their extension to labourers was akin to reforms such as the factory acts, state education, and sanitation and housing programs, reforms that anticipated progressive taxation, social security and the minimum wage.

As we now know of course, progress would be neither easy nor straightforward. For the new maritime unions, the time for celebration would be short. The agreement struck to conclude the London strike would be unilaterally terminated by the dock companies when it ran its course a year later, as the trade cycle turned down. Harvest time for the watersiders and seafarers closed in both Britain and Australia toward the end of 1890, when the employers launched a wholesale counter-attack on the new unions, but that is another story. 


Christopher Sheil is the President of the Evatt Foundation.


Suggested citation

Sheil, Christopher, 'Redressing inequality — 125 years ago', Evatt Journal, Vol. 13, No. 6, September 2014.<>


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