If the Match Girls’ strike of 1888 and the Great Dock Strike of August 1889 can be seen as two of the most important victories for the British Trades Union movement then another dispute in 1889 must go on record as equally important, if only for demonstrating the limits of that success.
The Silvertown strike, by workers at Silver’s India Rubber and Telegraph factory in West Ham, lasted for 12 weeks as the workers, emboldened by the success of other unionists in the capital, demanded better pay and conditions. However, the owners of the factory, S.W.Silver and Co, resisted the best efforts of the striking workforce to force them to negotiate and succeeded, in the end, in breaking the strike.
The workers were aided by Eleanor Marx, the daughter of Karl, and Tom Mann the co-author of New Unionism, the defining work of the new Labour movement in London. But the bosses in this case held firm and refused to capitulate, using the press to criticise the actions of the strikers and questioning the use of picketing. This had been a tactic used in the Dock Strike but then it had failed to dent public support for the dispute; in 1889 at Silvertown it was seemingly much more effective.
We can see the ways in which the courts were used to break the strike in this report from The Standard, in November. A number of summoned were heard by the sitting magistrates at West Ham concerning employees of the factory who were accused of ‘intimidation and riotous conduct’.
The summonses were brought by Mr Matthew Gray, an employee of the firm, and prosecuted by the company’s legal representative, Mr St. John Wontner. The strike had ben underway for six weeks and the legal questions turned on the legitimacy (or otherwise) of picketing. St. John Wontner explained the tactics used by the striking workers:
‘The entrance to the works was in a cup de sac‘, he told the bench, ‘and every day hundreds of the workers collected at the top and and hooted at the people as they came out, and shortly afterwards the women left their employment’.
Mr Baggallay warned the strikers that if they continued with this sort of behaviour they would be severely dealt with. ‘They were perfectly entitled to go on strike’ he conceded, ‘but they had no right to threaten others who desired to go to work’. He bound them all over on their own recognisances for £5 each and dismissed them.
In January 1890, unable to support their families through the strike and with a hardline attitude from management continuing, the workers were literally ‘starved back to work’ and the strike collapsed. Other firms were quick to congratulate Silver’s management for their fortitude and equally quick to learn the valuable lessons it taught them.
[from The Standard, Saturday, November 09, 1889]
Today the site of S.W.Silver and Co is the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery on the banks of the Thames