Remembering the Great Dock Strike of 1889

By Rob Virtue on August 14, 2014 11:07 AM |

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It was a summer that saw the working man fight back. And it happened here, 125 years ago this week.

At the south side of West India Docks, workers unloaded cargo from the Lady Armstrong assured that their labour would be rewarded with a bonus.

But there was no bonus and on the following Monday, the dockers voiced their frustration and fury at the dock gates.

Dockers' Union leader Tom McCarthy, standing on a chair borrowed from a nearby coffee shop, urged the men not to work, and many disgruntled and impoverished workers listened.

Georgina Young, of the Museum of London Docklands, said: "The numbers increased and as time went on it gained momentum from the initial flare-up and more were persuaded to join.

"It spread throughout the docks and even into other industries. It began because of the 'plus rates' - an additional payment for certain goods or work. They felt they should have the bonus that wasn't given. It wasn't the first time this had happened.

"Normally the dockers just had to suck it up as the power was with the dock companies. Some dockers had preferential treatment but most were casual workers and felt if they kicked up a fuss that might affect future work."

But there began a sense of solidarity among workers who were often rivals all desperate to be called up for work.

High status stevedores joined them and the docks were paralysed. Some 100,000 men refused to work.

It was 1889. The year before the East End match girls of Bryant & May had struck a blow against poor conditions and wages with a strike, emboldening the working classes.

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The dock workers demanded a wage of 6d, "the docker's tanner", and an overtime rate of 2d an hour instead of 1d and other changes to their hours and conditions.

The strike would go on for an arduous two months before intervention from clergyman Cardinal Manning who brought the dockworkers and dock managers together.

"Cardinal Manning was influential, respectable and distinct from the union leaders," said Georgina.

"He was a man of conscience, who saw suffering. A lot of well-off people were concerned about conditions in east London and knew the poverty people were suffering."

The strike was a major milestone for the organised labour movement and made the careers of union activist Will Crooks - who gave his name to a Poplar estate - and Ben Tillett (below), who was seen by many as a leader of the strike movement. They would go on to be early members of the Labour Party.

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It also brought great political thinkers such as Friedrich Engels to focus on the plight of the poor, with Engels predicting a socialist uprising.

But did it change the lives of the workers?

"It was a compromise," said Georgina. "No-one really won and no-one really lost. The workers achieved a good deal and got the 'dockers' tanner'. A lot of companies weren't happy about that.

"They also got a minimum of four hours' work when they were selected as often they could find themselves out on the street an hour later.

"It didn't mean an end to poverty but it was a step up from before. But the dock companies still kept the wealth and the power."

Go to museumoflondon.org.uk/docklands

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