A curious child gets a knockout blow

Thames-Lightermen-1024x646.jpg

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]

A rabble rouser threatens the peace of the Lord Mayor’s Show

qr281

Today it is the annual Lord Mayor’s show in the City of London. This event has been repeated at this time for hundreds of years and when I was a boy I always made a point of watching it on television, fascinated by the floats and military bands. The ceremonial point of the parade is to swear in the new Lord Mayor at the Royal Courts of Justice, but the ‘show’ is an opportunity to demonstrate the City’s wealth, power and diversity of talent to the nation as a whole. All the livery companies of the City take part and their floats and costumes often make links to the crafts they practice (tailors, grocers, ironmongers etc) or reflect a social or historical theme.

So today Peter Estlin will be sworn in as the 691stLord Mayor of London and head of the City’s Corporation. Amongst many roles the Mayor is appointed chief magistrate of the City and throughout the nineteenth century this meant that office holders routinely sat in judgment on offenders and others brought before them at the Mansion House Police court.

In 1892 one of the Lord Mayor’s fellow police court magistrates, Mr Mead, was the presiding justice at Thames Police court east of City the heart to London’s docklands. On day before that year’s Lord Mayor’s Show Daniel Keefe was put in the dock at Thames and accused of disorderly conduct and of inciting a crowd to disorder.

PC Isles had come across a gathering crowd outside the Sailor’s Home on Well Street. This establishment had been founded in 1828 on the site of an old theatre (the Brunswick) to help the plight of destitute seamen. A man had stood himself on a box so he could be seen and was addressing his audience.

33582-0x300

He was berating the authorities for allowing so many men to be unemployed and told them to boycott that year’s Lord Mayor’s Show in protest. Instead of waiving and cheering the mayor and his aldermen why not ‘test the right of free speech’ instead by demonstrating their discontent with the state of the economy that left so many people impoverished in the East End.

This was just three years after the Great Dock Strike that had seen working men flex their collective muscles and secure small but significant gains from the Dock companies. Throughout that dispute the police had been used to try and break up demonstrations and prevent secondary picketing. The magistracy had played their part too, in fining and imprisoning active participants whenever their saw a way to use the law to do so.

It was evident to PC Isles that regardless of the politics here that Keefe was in breach of the law. By calling a crowd together he was causing an obstruction to the footpath and, under the terms of the Police Code (1889), the officer was obliged to ask him to desist and to require the crowd to disperse. When Keefe refused he arrested him.

In court Mr Mead had little time for Keefe’s attempts to justify himself. Keefe said he had as much right to be on the street as anyone else and that he was hemmed in by the crowd and so couldn’t move when the constable had asked him to. He was ‘vindicating the rights of the unemployed’ (a term that only entered the Oxford Dictionary in 1888) and so his cause was noble. He had even started a ‘labour bureau’ to help men find work.

Mead was uninterested and chose to bind Keefe over in the sum of £5 (about £400 today) which he would forfeit if he broke the peace again within six months. He was, in effect, stopping any attempt by Keefe to ‘rabble rouse’ in the East End and issuing a warning to him and others not to disturb the annual pageantry in the City.

[from The Standard, Thursday, November 10, 1892]

The ‘tyranny of Trades unions’ causes a short sighted appointment.

Unknown

I was drawn to this headline in the Standard for late October 1897, which referred to a case before the magistrate at Worship Street in the East End of London. It concerned a glass beveller called Mr Bacon who had summoned his apprentice to appear in court.

In the course of my PhD research I found that London masters frequently brought their apprentices to court (or indeed were summoned by them to appear themselves) but at the Chamberlain’s not, not Mansion House or Guildhall. There all sorts of disputes were heard and resolved, usually touching on the disobedience of apprentices or failure of masters to teach their charges their arts.

Elsewhere in England disputes between masters and apprentices (and masters and servants) were often settled in front of a magistrate, and so this one was in line with what we know from previous research from an earlier period.

Mr Bacon had come to complain that his apprentice was entirely unfit to learn the trade of glass beveling because, to quote:

‘Apart from the apprentice being exceedingly troublesome and unruly’ […] ‘he was near-sighted, and consequently couldn’t be put to work the machinery or the larger tools, which were dangerous’.

Clearly then there was a problem but how was it that Bacon had just found this out Mr Corser (the sitting justice) wanted to know?

Well that was because of the unions the glass worker explained. In order to be allowed to start work in the shop the lad had to be formally apprenticed (in other words, to have his indentures signed). The unions refused to allow their men to work with non-indentured boys and threatened to go on strike if this was not complied with. Indeed they had already struck when an apprenticed  boy  had been set on one of the beveling machines.

So ‘the lad in this case was no good to him’ (and I suspect his attitude was something that Bacon was not prepared to cope with either). If he kept him on his poor sight would inevitably lead to accidents and he (Bacon) would be liable for compensation. As a result the magistrate had no choice but to cancel the youngster’s indentures and hope he found gainful employment somewhere else.

[from The Standard, Monday, October 25, 1897]

Angry shoemakers take to the streets of Hackney

boot-and-shoe-emblem--part-of_300x295

One Sunday in early October 1892 a grim looking band of men started marching up and down a street in Hackney, north-east London. The men marched to the musical accompaniment of a motely band playing the ‘death march’ and every now than then the group turned to point accusingly at towards the occupants of the houses they passed, shouting out ‘scabs!’, ‘rats!’ and ‘gaol birds!’

Several men broke ranks and rushed over to the homes shoving handbills under the portals. These printed bills carried a foreboding message:

‘To all Trade Unionists, – Under the auspices of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Clickers and Rough Stuff Cutters, a few Sunday morning demonstrations against sweaters, and scabs, rats and other vermin will be given in the London Fields district, commencing on Sunday October 2, and will be continued until further notice’.

London Fields was large open area that had once been home mainly to sheep and highwaymen in the previous century. By the late 1800s it was ‘a hard unsightly, dismal plain’, when it rained it became an ‘impassable swamp’. It was uncultivated and so idea for demonstrations.

The handbill continued:

‘All Unionists […] who believe in giving sweaters, scabs, rats, and other vermin a musical lunch will confer a favour on the above Union by meeting on London Fields next Sunday at 10.30, when they will form in procession, headed by bands and banners, and pay each of these social parasites and bloodsuckers a visit’…

The noise and the threats prompted at least two individuals to complain at the North London Police court. Both men said they had been targeted directly. They said they worked in a shop where a dispute was underway but denied being scabs (strike breakers).  Mr Bros (presiding) suggested that they applied for a summons against those responsible for a breach of the peace, and sent them on their way.

The actions of the trades union members seems to be a cross over from traditional acts of ‘rough musicing’ (literally banging pots and pans outside someone’s home to show community disproval) and more ‘modern’ acts of picketing (as demonstrated during the 1889 Dock Strike).

The Boot and Show Union had formed in 1873 and within a decade boasted 10,000 members. It had merged with the Rough Stuff and Clickers Union in 1892, the year this case occurred, but split soon after. They had one big strike, in 1897, in support of a minimum wage and 54 hour week but unlike the Match Girls (in 1888) and the Dockers (1889) they weren’t successful.

We don’t have a large scale boot and show industry anymore, but several firms in Northamptonshire (where I teach) continue to produce top quality leather shoes many of which are exported across the world. In London in the late 1800s the competition form cheap foreign labour (‘sweaters’) was intense and only the larger factories (in Northants) survived into the 1900s.

[from The Standard (London, England), Tuesday, October 04, 1892]

“The labourer has learned that combination can lead him to anything and everything” (John Burns). Sadly, 1889 was a false dawn for unionism.

UssTUpe

Resting stevedores on the London Docks, c.1890

1889 has gone down in Trade Union history as one of the most significant. This was the year of the Great Dock Strike in London where dock labourers led by Ben Tillet, Tom Mann and Will Thorne; with support from prominent socialists such as John Burns, Eleanor Marx, and the Catholic archbishop of London, Cardinal Manning, emerged victorious.

The strike secured an extra penny an hour (the ‘dockers’ tanner’), along with the recognition of their newly formed union and most of their other demands. For the Labour movement the Dock Strike (and the Match girls strike which inspired it) was huge; recruitment soared and by 1899 over 2,000,000 Britons had joined a trade unions.

However, it didn’t take the employers long to regroup and fight back. Further disputes occurred and companies were now more aware of strikers’ tactics and the methods required to confront them. In addition, infighting and jealousies emerged within unions and between competing workers to undermine the collectivity that had been so vital to success in 1889.

In 1891 a dispute broke out between seaman on ships and the unionised stevedores who controlled the unloading of goods. This allowed the owners of the shipping companies to drive a wedge between two sets of working men and prosecute the fightback against organised union labour. A strike in the Cardiff docks by seamen was defeated and they were forced to accept the terms of the employers. This was between January and March 1891 and affected the London docks as well.

In February 1891 Edward Polton, a 29 year-old stevedore working at Silvertown in docklands, appeared before Mr Kennedy at Woolwich Police Magistrate Court.

Bolton was charged with: ‘throwing missiles from the steam ship Egyptian Monarch, in the Royal Albert Docks, at the Shipping Federation men’.

The missiles in question were nuts and bolts but the case didn’t turn on the danger caused to the Federation’s men (non-union labour employed by the Dock Company) but on whether the large had been accurately laid or not. The original charge was that Polton had been throwing missiles into a public space and therefore endangering ‘the common public’.

The court learned that the docks were closed off by gates and a sign declared that no one was to be admitted ‘except on business’. Dock constables guarded the docks to prevent non-authorised persons from entering (a result it seems of the experiences of the port authorities in the 1889 dispute), and the docks were staffed by non-union men.

That Polton was lobbing missiles at the Fed’s men was not in doubt but he wasn’t guilty of doing so ‘in public’ but instead in private. Mr Kennedy therefore ordered that the stevedore be discharged but recommend to the Dock Company that they bring a new prosecution for assault. If convicted (and the suggestion must have been that Polton would have been convicted) he would face two months in prison, taking an active union man out of action for a considerable period of time and potentially deterring others from following his example. His decision was met with cheers in court, whether from Bolton’s supporters or the Federation men is not made clear.

This little incident from the Police Courts gives us a brief window into the ongoing struggle between workers and employers in the late nineteenth century. Each side learned lessons from the disputes they entered into but the ‘bosses’ had the distinct advantage of being supported by the law. That law, of course, was not written by (or even for) the vast majority of the population but instead was created to protect wealth and privilege from the very people that wanted to see it distributed more evenly.

The battles between unions and owners continued into the next century but ultimately it was always the unions that lose. There have been high points and moral victories, but today the union movement is largely powerless to prevent the continued exploitation of working men and women by rapacious capitalism and a government which listens first to company executives and last to the people on the ‘shop floor’.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, February 18, 1891]

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

London_Dock_Strike_of_1889-Wikipedia2-thumb

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.

182812643

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’.

George Carter ‘sticks it to the man’ and receives some sympathy from the bench

unknown---4red-0028lst-nmt0029

George Carter was tired.

In fact he was so tired that he felt he needed, and deserved, a holiday. Sadly for him his employer, the North London Metropolitan Tramways Company thought otherwise. Workers had no statutory right to any holiday before 1938, and even that (one week a year) was hard fought and well below the minimum the Trades Union Congress had campaigned for. By contrast today the law states that ‘almost all workers’ are entitled to 28 days of annual leave.

The only way George Carter could get the rest he felt he required was to effectively quit his job, or at least stop working for a while. So on the 1st November 1875 George, who worked as a conductor collecting the fares on the trams, met with his supervisor and told him he was taking some time off. Mr Thomas Bradley, his inspector, said he found have to place someone else on his route and demanded he hand over any outstanding fares.

Carter was holding onto £3 15s 6d of the company’s money but he wanted to know what would happen if he left to have his well-earned break. Would he be discharged, he asked? If so he was going to keep the money.

At the Worship Street Police Court, where Carter appeared to answer a summons from the tram company, it was revealed that it was company policy to extract a £5 deposit from all the conductors prior to them starting their service. Presumably they were a distrustful lot and didn’t like the idea of their staff walking away with their money. Mr G. H Smith, the manager of the company, had  declared that he would be sacked and his wages and depots forfeited. It was this that had prompted the summons and the court case.

So inspector Bradley already had George’s money, indeed he had more than the £3 15s he was demanding he hand over. Moreover the tram company’s employees were forced to sign a document that made the bosses the ‘sole judges in any dispute’ and gave them power ‘to order the forfeiture of the deposit-money and all wages due’. Even in a world with zero-hour contracts and firms like Uber this was a terribly uneven distribution of power between employers and employees and the magistrate was appalled by it.

‘it was ‘very one-sided’, Mr Hannay said, ‘putting the men in the position of slaves without hope of redress in a court of law’, and it had been remarked upon a number of times in that court.

But there was nothing in law to stop the tram company setting the rules as it had; trades unions hardly operated  effectively in the period and it wasn’t until later in the century that they began to flex their muscles with any real hope of success. So all George Carter could do was withdraw his labour and hope to be reemployed at a later date by someone, if not his current employers.

Mr Hannay opted out of the debate; he said he had no power to adjudicate here and so dismissed the summons. As far as he could see the company had Carter’s £5 and he was hanging on to a ‘lesser sum’. If they wanted to pursue him for the fares he retained then they would have to do so in the county court, at their own expense. It wasn’t exactly a victory for the ‘little man’ but it was reported as an example of sharp practice by an employer than many people reading this would have been family with.

Whether that inspired them to look for alternative forms of transport in the future is questionable, but the publicity was hardly good for Mr G. H. Smith and his company were tainted by it, just as Mike Ashley’s appearance in front of the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee in July 2106 did nothing for the reputation of Sports Direct.

Trades Unions get a lot of stick, much of it well deserved. But we should remember that every single right that workers have today – to holidays, sick pay, pensions, safe conditions at work, training, and equal opportunities, have been extracted from the capitalist class by determined workers backed by union representatives. It is not for nothing that nearly every Conservative government since the second world war has attempted to curb the power of the unions in some way or another. Despite their claims of ‘one nation Toryism’ the Conservative and Unionist Party represent the ‘haves’ (like G. H. Smith) rather than the ‘have-nots’ (like George Carter).

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, November 14, 1875]