“The St. Lawrence is mere water. The Missouri muddy water. The Thames is liquid history.” So declared John Burns – a great advocate of London’s history – when asked to compare the Thames against those other great rivers in 1929. Forty years earlier in 1889 Burns had been a towering figurehead of the Great Dock Strike, thus sealing his own place in those murky waters. As the 125th anniversary of the strike approaches (14 August – 16 September) it feels an opportune moment to reflect on what this particular passage of liquid history might mean today.
The incident that sparked the Great Dock Strike was neither grand nor unusual and took place within sight of Museum of London Docklands where I write this blog. Over the weekend of the 10th and 11th August 1889 the cargo of the Lady Armstrong was unloaded in the West India Docks. The dockers worked speedily and expected ‘plus money’ akin to a bonus for their efforts. Their superintendent assessed things differently and, not for the first time, the dockers felt cheated. News spread and by the morning of Monday 12th August there was a commotion at the West India Dock gates as men hoping for work that day were persuaded by passionate speakers to withdraw their labour.
The core demands of the dockers were articulated in letters from Ben Tillett, founder of the two-year-old and initially tiny Tea Operatives and General Labourers Union, to the London and India Docks Joint Committee. These modest documents (example above), with their combination of formal headed paper and flowing handwriting mark the transition from spontaneous protest to organised movement. They requested pay of 6 pence per hour (the Docker’s Tanner), with 8 pence per hour overtime and a minimum payment equivalent to 4 hours wages for the casual dockers taken on each morning. On 14 August, with no response received from the dock companies, the strike became official.
The idea that dockers might combine in this way had previously seemed unthinkable. The pockets of extreme poverty in East London had been cause for philanthropic concern for some time and were sharply illustrated by Charles Booth in his renowned Descriptive Map of London Poverty, but few imagined that the East London poor might act on their own behalf, particularly not casual labourers with so little certainty of work. The socialist thinker Friedrich Engels marvelled as he witnessed the peak of the strike in late August when over 100,000 dockers, stevedores, lightermen, bargemen and more stayed out and paralysed the Port of London:
“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 need not despair of any section of the working class.”
The Great Dock Strike was long and its outcome remained far from certain. There were accusations of intimidation and threats on both sides. A battle of claim and counter-claim between the trade unions and the dock companies was fought out in the glare of the global press as each side courted public opinion and influential backers. The strikers faced starvation and seemed close to beaten by the end of August. The debt owed to Australia for the financial support that allowed them to hold out until all their key demands were granted two weeks later is commemorated in this spectacular Amalgamated Stevedores Labour Protection League banner, on display at the Museum of London Docklands.
The struggles of the Great Dock Strike were not so far from the employment issues that provoke debate in London now. The demand for the Docker’s Tanner echoes in contemporary campaigns for the London Living Wage, representing the lowest amount necessary for survival in the city. The four hour minimum payment for casual workers touches upon the same concerns as the current campaign to regulate zero hours contracts. Yet 125 years on, the material gains for dockers seem modest in comparison with enduring ideas around social justice and the power of popular movements which found their feet and their voice in the Great Dock Strike. Sydney Buxton, the MP for Poplar who helped to resolve the strike summarised powerfully:
“You have given convincing proof of the force of combination and to my mind, such combination is one of the safeguards of our civilisation, for it is defence of the weak against the strong and it alone makes our democracy a reality.”
See the spectacular banner on display now in the ‘First Port of Empire’ gallery at the Museum of London Docklands, FREE, open daily 10am-6pm.