Striking dockers in the East India Dock Road, 1889
1889 was a big year for British Trades Unionism. It was the year that Ben Tillett (with support from John Burns and other prominent socialists) led the London dockworkers to victory in their dispute with the dock companies. The demands of the workers seem almost trivial today; they wanted a guarantee of at least four hours work at sixpence (a ‘tanner’) an hour.
East Londoners supported them, as did the Catholic bishop of London, the Labour Church and the Salvation Army. Funds were raised to feed striking families and rent strikes broke out as the workers resisted all attempts to force them back to work. Afterwards John Burns reflected that then Labour movement had learned a lesson that was perhaps more important than the achievement of the specific aims of the strike. He declared:
‘labour of the humbler kind has shown its capacity to organise itself; its solidarity; its ability. The labourer has learned that combination can lead him to anything and everything’.
The strike sent ripples thorough society and, like the Match Girls’ strike the year before, unnerved the authorities. Labour was flexing its muscles and where possible those in power needed to put this particular genii firmly back in its box. During the Dock Strike the police had been deployed to break up picket lines, and arrest those intimidating non-union workers. Some of the battle lines that we saw repeated in the twentieth century had their birth in the 1880s. I well recall how Margaret Thatcher’s government used the police to in the front line against the miners in the 1980s for example.
When Charles Stephens, a union man, appeared at Worship Street Police Court in December 1889 he must have feared the worst. A complaint against Stephens was brought by an unnamed ‘sandwich man’ – someone employed by an advertising agent to wear a sandwich board and walk up and down in the street.
The sandwich man was standing by Shoreditch church when Stephens approached him. He asked him if he was a union man and the other replied that he wasn’t.
‘If you don’t belong to a Union, I ain’t going to let you carry them boards about’, Stephens told him, and then seized him and wrestled with him until the straps of the boards broke and were thrown down to the street.
Stephens was arrested and charged at Worship Street with disorderly conduct and assault. Mr Montagu Williams, the sitting magistrate, asked the prosecutor what the man had meant by ‘Union man’.
The sandwich professed not to know so Stephens interjected from the dock:
“I asked him if he belonged to the Labourer’s Union’.
‘Union for what?’ demanded Mr Williams
‘To prevent a man working unless he belongs to it’ came Stephens’ defiant reply.
‘That is a very disgraceful union then’, snapped the magistrate.
At this Stephens pullet a small booklet from his pocket and handed it to the policeman by the dock. It was entitled ‘The Dock, Wharf, and General Labourers Union of Great Britain and Ireland’. It was stamped to show that Stephens was a fully paid up member and declared that Ben Tillett was it secretary. It was the union Tillett had formed in 1887 as the Tea Operatives and General Labourers’ Association which, from small beginnings, had swelled to over 30,000 members by the end of 1889.
Stephens was part of a growing movement of organised labour and his confidence and bravado in the dock are perhaps indicative of how union members felt in the wake of their victory that year. Montagu Williams was neither impressed nor intimidated however, and was seemingly resolved to reassert the authority of the ruling class in the face of such an upstart.
‘You are one of those men that get up these Unions and strikes’, he told him. ‘You are all talk, and there is no work in you. Well I will teach you, and others like you that you shall not interfere with men who choose to work, you will go to prison for 21 days’.
Stephens was led away, still shouting the odds defiantly. He would spend Christmas in gaol that year.
[from The Standard, Saturday, December 21, 1889]
For more posts related to late 19th century Trade Unionism and its contexts see: