A curious child gets a knockout blow

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Not all stories are exactly what they seem when you start reading them. I found this one, about a Thames lighterman – one of the men that operated the flat bottomed barges ferrying goods up and down London’s central river – assaulting an eight year-old boy, and assumed it was a simple case of child abuse.

However, the incident – unpleasant as it was –  actually revealed that something else was going on in the capital at the end of November 1889.

Matthew Petter should have been at Sunday school on the 24 November. But, like many young boys, he was curious and as he crossed Vauxhall Bridge he got distracted watching the boats go up and down. As he watched he noticed a small group of men who were having an argument with a lighterman.

Henry Bliss (28) was a lighterman and when some of his fellows had recently downed tools and gone on strike, he carried on working. This hardly endeared him to his colleagues and today they were showing him how they felt.

Their hoots and cries of ‘blackleg’ escalated from verbal into physical brickbats being thrown; rubbish, bricks and stones were lobbed in his direction and Bliss lost his temper. He picked up a half-brick and threw it back, aiming at his tormenters. The brick missed them and struck a railing, bounced off and smacked young Matthew on the head, and knocked him senseless.

The crowd of angry rivermen roared in outrage and rushed forward to seize Bliss. He turned his boat and headed out into the river. The mob chased him along the bank and some took to other crafts. Finally Bliss gave himself up to river police, asking for their protection, as he clearly feared for his life.

The boy was hospitalised and when Bliss appeared to answer a summons at Westminster Police Court he was very apologetic, offering to compensate Mrs Petter for the cost of treating the little lad’s injuries. Mr D’Eyncourt probably sympathized with the lighterman – magistrates tended to side against striking union men – so he fined him a nominal 26and Mrs Petter accepted a payment of 50sin compensation.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 8, 1889]

Nascent trade unionism nipped in the bud at Mansion House

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General Association

Most of us will have experienced,  or have maybe even taken part in some form of industrial action initiated by a trade union. Southern Rail commuters in particular are now very family with an ongoing dispute between the employers and drivers and guards who cannot agree on who should open the doors on their trains. The result has been months of strikes, reduced services and delays. There have been calls for the government to take action and even to prevent strikes from happening. In certain industries (the police and prison service for example) strike action is banned.

It would probably be fair to say that since the Winter of Discontent in 1978-9 there has been a regressive (or progressive, depending on your viewpoint) move towards striking unionism and union action.

We haven’t always had trade unions of course, and history shows us that governments had to be forced to allow them to exists at all, let alone exercise any kind of pressure on employers. The Combination Acts of 1799/1800 aimed to prevent workers combining  to form associations and these were not repealed until the 1820s; thereafter unions began to develop.

In 1833 a ‘general’ union was formed to represent the views and needs of men and women from a variety of trades. In 1834 the government infamously attempted to suppress the GNCTU (Grand National Consolidated Trades Union) by arresting six men from the Dorset village of Tolpuddle and transporting them to Australia.

So in 1834 the embryonic trades union movement was under pressure and we can see the antagonism that these workers’ groups faced in a case that came before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House in March of that year.

A tailor and draper on Cheapside came to the Mansion House Police Court to complain about the behaviour of a group of men who were pressurising his workers to down tools because one of their number had been sacked. Mr Roberts told the Lord Mayor and alderman Anstey who sat together as magistrates that he had been obliged to dismiss one of his men because of his behaviour. This man had ‘been absent eight hours from his work, by which the sale of a suit of clothes had been lost’.

As soon as this became widely known a group of journey tailors came to the place where Roberts’ men were working and told then in no uncertain terms that unless they stopped working ‘they should fare the worse for such a violation of propriety’.

Mr Roberts told the bench that this situation was intolerable and unless the ‘unionists’ were stopped ‘trade could not continue’. As a result he had identified one man (unnamed) who was now in the dock accused of urging others to disrupt his trade.

The Lord Mayor, as a member of the mercantile elite in the City could hardly be expected to side with the journeymen tailors and he didn’t. He was outraged at the man’s behaviour but at the same time he was reluctant to impose the normal sanction – three months’ imprisonment.

He asked the tailor if he would accept an apology and a promise that ‘no action of this kind would occur again’. He said he would but was concerned that there were ‘eight or ten journeymen’ present in court who would ‘deprive him of his men, and he hoped the Lord Mayor would let them know they should not act with impunity’.

The defendant’s lawyer said his client was sorry and had not intended to interrupt Mr Roberts’ business. The Lord Mayor them warned those present against any attempt to tae action in the future and discharged the defendant.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, March 03, 1834]