‘You are all talk, and there is no work in you’: a magistrate sends a ‘Union man’ to prison for Christmas

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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’.

If only.

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.

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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:

Striking workers in West Ham are thwarted with the help of the bench

Assault on the docks

Exploiting workers in the late 19th century ‘rag trade’.

Striking workers in West Ham are thwarted with the help of the bench

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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

Winter is coming and for one mother that means a spell inside

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Winter is coming.

Hallowe’en has come and gone and Bonfire Night is looming. The clocks have gone back and the air has turned distinctly chilly. Yesterday in town I noticed more rough sleepers than usual around King’s Cross and St Pancras and reflected once again that our modern society still hasn’t solved the problem of poverty.

The reports from the Victorian Police Courts provide ample evidence that desperation and poverty were endemic in the 1800s. This was a society without a welfare state, with no old age pension scheme, or National Health Service, or social services. Where we have a benefits system (however flawed) they had the workhouse or charity and recourse to either meant shame and failure.

In our ‘modern’ world we have people whose lives have been destroyed by drink or drugs and both provide the really desperate with the anaesthetic they need to simply survive on day-to-day basis. I saw a notice yesterday that said, ‘would you smash up a phone box to get 24 hours in a dry cell with food?’

This is a reality for some people in ‘modern’ Britain.

In October 1865 Mary M’Grath was charged at Thames Police Court with being drunk and disorderly and punching a policeman. Mary was about 30 years old and had a baby with her in court. PC John Mansfield (393K) testified that on the previous afternoon he had seen Mary rolling about, quite drunk, on the East India Dock Road.

She was carrying her infant and staggering about so badly that she kept banging into the nearby ‘walls and houses’. The child was ‘injured and screamed fearfully’, he added. Mary kept up a stream of the most unpleasant language, so disgusting that several onlookers complained to him about it.

Eventually  she fell heavily and a man rushed up to save the child and a police sergeant arrived to help  PC Mansfield take her to the police station. Once there she rewarded him with more abuse and landed a blow on his face, blackening his eye and impairing his sight.

The next day they appeared in court before Mr Paget, the magistrate, who asked the constable what had become of the child.

‘It was taken to the workhouse’, the policeman replied.

‘How old is it?’ the magistrate asked him.

‘Four months old’.

‘It is eight months old’, piped up Mary from the dock.

Mr Paget declared that nothing was more disgraceful than seeing a mother so drunk in public. Didn’t she have a husband at home he enquired.

‘No sir, my husband died seven years ago’, came the reply. So her baby was illegitimate and presumably the product of new relationship or a casual encounter, and no father was present in court. Drunk, riotous and promiscuous the magistrate was probably thinking, a suitable object not for pity but for condemnation.

In reality of course Mary’s life became that much more difficult when her husband had passed away. She would have lost the main bread winner and her partner. It is likely she already had children so they would have added to her problems. Perhaps this explains her descent into alcoholism.

She told him that she couldn’t remember what had happened the previous day, so drunk had she been. She had been inside the workhouse, and therefore destitute as no one went inside iff they could possibly help it.

‘I was there long enough’ she explained, and ‘I was half starved’ and ‘discharged myself. I took a drop [of alcohol] and lost myself’.

So in her version of events  she had been so malnourished in the ‘house’ that a small amount of drink (probably gin) had affected her much more than it would normally. It was probably an exaggeration of the truth but it did her no good. Instead of opting to find her some help in the form of money, food and shelter Mr Paget sent her to prison for a month at hard labour.

She had merely swapped one uncaring institution for another. As for the child, well as a ‘suckling’ Mr Paget decided it needed to stay with its mother, so off to goal it went as well.

This was an oft repeated story in Victorian London. Children were growing up affected by alcoholism, grinding poverty, homelessness, and sometimes, prison. No wonder reformers demanded change and some turned to ‘extreme’ politics (like socialism or anarchism). Men like Paget had comfortable lives and sat in judgement for the most part on those that scraped by.

Can we, hand on heart, say that 150 years later everything is so much better? Yes, of course to an extent we have provided a much better safety net for Mary M’Grath and her baby. But have we really tackled the root causes of her poverty? No, I don’t think we have  and while we pursue a form of economics and politics that allows some people to live in epic luxury while others sleep rough on the streets I don’t think we can sit in judgement of our ancestors either.

Winter is coming.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 01, 1865]