Industrial struggle has been back in the news this week with the strikes and protests by ASDA workers, whose punitive new contracts require them to work on bank holidays and take unpaid breaks. 130 years ago, this week, all eyes were on East London where the Great Dock Strike was just beginning. Its leading personality was an extraordinary but flawed character called Ben Tillett, who grew up in the most difficult circumstances. This extract from the new edition of my book, Rebel Footprints, tells the story of that strike and gives an insight into his character
Ben Tillett… began working young. At seven years old he worked long days at Roach’s brickyard in Bristol, though he was probably relieved to get away from home, where his alcoholic father and a succession of stepmothers mistreated or neglected him. After two failed attempts to run away, he escaped with a circus troupe, who taught him acrobatics. He took a stray dog with him. The circus troupe gave him a Shetland pony to look after. At night he slept next to the pony, and the dog kept the rats away. One of Tillett’s five sisters tracked him down and took him to relatives in Staffordshire, where he had two years of schooling before being apprenticed to a shoemaker. At 13 he joined the Royal Navy, visiting various European ports, Philadelphia and the Caribbean, and learned to read and write with the help of a Scottish friend. Fittingly, in terms of his future activism, he sailed on one ship called Resistance. Between voyages he stayed with his sister’s mother-in-law in Bethnal Green, east London. He finally settled there at 16 years old, working at Markie’s boot factory, and joined the Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives.
Tillett married Jane Tompkins and they shared her mother’s flat in Hunslett Street. Determined to expand his intellectual horizons he became the librarian at his local church, taught himself basic Latin and Greek, and attended lectures at Bow and Bromley Adult Education Institute. He struggled to overcome a stammer by reading Dickens to Jane in the evenings.
He began working on the docks, describing the humiliating ‘call-on’ system in a powerful speech at Whitechapel in 1887, later published as A Dock Labourer’s Bitter Cry.
‘We are driven into a shed, iron-barred from end to end, outside of which a foreman or contractor walks up and down with the air of a dealer in a cattle market … choosing from a crowd of men, who, in their eagerness to obtain employment trample each other under foot, and where like beasts they fight for the chances of a day’s work.’
A ‘day’s work’ was usually less. Dockworkers often walked great distances to a job, unloaded cargo non-stop for two hours, and were then told to go home. Tillett himself recalled a 40-mile round trip on foot. Beatrice Potter noted the ‘hidden irony in the dockers’ fate’, touching all things but enjoying none as ‘ … the luxuries of our elaborate civilisation pass familiarly through the dock labourer’s hands’.
The supply of dock labour constantly outstripped demand, driving wages down. One contemporary account describes how dockers ‘faint from over-exhaustion and want of food … are ruptured, their spines injured, their bones broken, and their skulls fractured … to get ships loaded and unloaded a little quicker and a little cheaper’. This was not a socialist propaganda leaflet but the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet.
Tillett was working as a tea cooper at Monument Tea Warehouse in spring 1887 when a dispute broke out among counterparts at Cutler Street Warehouse. They sought Tillett’s advice and he helped them to form the Tea Operatives and General Labourers’ Association (TOGLA) – a union that would help to challenge the main companies exploiting the dockers.
Tillett was elected as TOGLA’s Union Secretary and spent most Sundays speaking and recruiting at the dock gates. His personal diary from 1888 recorded disappointments and successes: frustratingly small meetings in March, when snow still covered the ground after a harsh winter; optimism in April when he met well-organised stevedores and sold copies of Bitter Cry. In June he noted large meetings at the dock gates, while ‘enthusiastic crowds’ attended indoor evening meetings. When industrial disputes broke out among some dockworkers in October and November, he invited Annie Besant and Herbert
Burrows and Besant (centre) at the founding of the Female Matchmakers Union
Burrows to talk to them about the matchworkers’ successful struggle [in the summer of 1888]. These dock disputes ultimately failed, but Tillett glimpsed the prospect of wider action. His final diary entry in 1888 recorded, ‘Cold worse than ever. Went to chapel. Old year out. Like to live next year a more useful life than last.’ He would. By early 1889 momentum was building. Hundreds of TOGLA members paid regular union dues and thousands of dockers expressed growing enthusiasm in meetings around the docks. TOGLA established branches in Tilbury, Poplar and Canning Town.
Participants and historians dispute when the Great Dock Strike began. Will Thorne described a meeting at South Dock gates on Monday 12 August 1889 when he and a stevedore, Tom McCarthy, addressed a large, disgruntled crowd before the eight o’clock call-on. McCarthy listed their grievances and Thorne urged them to form a union and refuse to work. The workers unanimously supported a strike. Simultaneously, dockers unloading the Lady Armstrong in the South Dock basin of West India Docks were withholding their labour because a promised bonus had not been paid. Their leader wrote to the dock authorities on Tuesday 13 August with demands that included a minimum four-hour call-on (instead of the usual two or three); wages to be sixpence an hour (eight pence for overtime), and an end to piecework. Ben Tillett had sent similar demands the previous week, but the dock authorities had not responded. On Wednesday 14 August, Tillett met the Lady Armstrong workers. On Friday that week the Amalgamated Stevedores Union announced that dock labourers were on strike, and appealed to ‘engineers, fitters, boiler-makers, ships’ carpenters, coal heavers, ballast men and lightermen’, for solidarity action, and for help from the community.
A collective leadership emerged. Tillett, Tom Mann, John Burns and Tom McCarthy mobilised support. Eleanor Marx took on key administrative tasks and Henry Hyde Champion… acted as press officer. Will Thorne described Tom Mann as ‘human quicksilver, here, there and everywhere, commanding, pleading, cajoling, enthusing’, while Tillett possessed ‘a spark of genius’ and ‘planned a picket system for the whole 50 miles of London’s docks’. As well as demands over hours and pay, the strike committee crucially demanded union recognition throughout the port. Without it, companies could break agreements without being held to account.
In the last week of August many East End industries were idle. That week the female workforces of Frost’s Ropemakers in Commerical Road and Peek Frean’s biscuits in Bermondsey walked out. Women also collected donations and organised rent strikes. In Hungerford Street, near Watney Market, a banner defiantly declared: ‘As we are on strike landlords need not call.’
Neither TOGLA nor the Amalgamated Stevedores Union held substantial strike funds, so the committee focused on sustaining the strikers’ families through meal tickets redeemable at certain shops. The Salvation Army’s hall on Whitechapel Road supplied thousands of loaves of bread each day to strikers’ families. Local churches opened soup kitchens. Following the matchwomen’s example, striking dockers marched through the area and beyond, holding meetings on open spaces.
On 25 August 1889 a spectacular parade, 50,000 strong, headed for the City. Brass bands, banners proclaiming ‘Unity and Victory’ and horse-drawn boats carrying strikers in fancy dress, lent it a carnival appearance. Street theatre players contrasted dockers’ and employers’ lives: plates with a director’s dinner piled high next to a docker’s crust of bread and a tiny herring; puppets represented a docker’s scrawny child in rags and a well-fed, well-dressed director’s child, and their cats – one thin, the other the director’s ‘Fat Cat’. [The expression ‘fat cat’ may be based on this. Others claim it was first used by political commentators in 1920s America.] They returned with donations of hundreds of pounds. Weekend marches ended in huge rallies, some at Tower Hill, others in Hyde Park, where at the end of August, 100,000 people gathered around twenty speakers’ platforms.
On 27 August the Evening News estimated that 130,000 workers were on strike, and it was spreading: ‘ … [E]ven factory girls are coming out. If it goes on a few days longer, all London will be on holiday … the proverbial small spark has kindled a great fire which threatens to envelope the whole metropolis.’
That spark had been lit by the 1,400 women who walked out at Bryant & May’s Fairfield Works the previous year and became role-models for their brothers, husbands and uncles, many of them dockworkers.
As August drew to a close, the strike entered its most critical period. The extraordinary
Dock strike march 1889
effort and sacrifice by workers, with solid community backing, had not persuaded the dock employers. Daily collections could not feed all the strikers’ families. Hunger was sapping morale. The strike committee considered calling on workers across the capital to come out indefinitely in solidarity. A general London strike might pressurise the employers to settle, but could risk losing a significant section of public and press support and be difficult to sustain. On 29 August the committee took that risk and issued the ‘No Work’ manifesto, which appealed to ‘workers in London of all grades and every calling’ to stay at home from Monday, ‘ … unless the directors have before noon on Saturday … officially informed the committee that the moderate demands of the dock labourers have been fully and finally conceded’.
Key members of the strike committee expressed misgivings. Within 24 hours the manifesto was withdrawn but with a face-saving appeal to London’s workers to contribute generously towards the strike fund. On the other side, frustrated ship-owners pressured the dock companies to compromise, and the dock employers scented victory, believing time favoured them.
Suddenly a game-changing donation of £1,500 arrived – from the Brisbane Wharf Labourers’ Union of Australia – with a promise that more would follow. Over a relatively short period, their Antipodean counterparts telegraphed thousands of pounds to the dock strike committee, collected though unions and amateur football clubs. The prospect of the docks remaining idle for several more weeks forced the companies to negotiate. The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Manning, mediated, and the strike was settled by mid-September, with the dockers winning their ‘tanner’ – sixpence per hour (and eight pence for overtime), and a minimum four-hour call-on in most cases.
Within a short time Tillett’s pioneering efforts at dockside unionisation had helped to create a Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers Union with 18,000 members. By 1890, in the light of the matchworkers’, gasworkers’ and dockers’ successes [Gasworkers had won the 8-hour day that year], commentators acclaimed a ‘new unionism’ born of rebellion, not only against their employers but also against earlier inward-looking trade unions representing what Engels termed ‘the aristocracy of labour’. East London was the cradle of these struggles.
A more traditional trade unionist, George Shipton considered ‘new unionism’ too militant. His critical article in Murray’s Magazine in June 1890, however, gave Tom Mann and Ben Tillett – respectively President and Secretary of the post-strike dockers’ union – the opportunity to explain the difference between old and new unionism to its readers. Tillett and Mann said the old unionists ‘… do not recognise, as we do, that it is the work of the trade unions to stamp out poverty from the land … We are prepared to work unceasingly for the emancipation of the workers. Our ideal is the Cooperative Commonwealth.’
Although Mann and Tillett cherished the new means of struggle, that transcended the narrow confines of individual workplaces, they valued and honoured the courage of ‘old union’ activists, whose day was passing. To be a unionist then ‘was to be a social martyr … with the hue and cry against them of police and Parliament’.
By 1892, Engels… described the new unionists as ‘rough, neglected’ toilers, ‘looked down upon by the working class aristocracy’, but with an immense advantage, as their minds ‘were virgin soil, entirely free from the inherited “respectable” bourgeois prejudices which hampered the brains of the better situated old unionists.’
The rebels who triumphed over powerful economic forces and revolutionised struggles for workers’ rights, created new possibilities for those following in their footsteps into the twentieth century. The first significant branches of the suffragette movement in London grew in the east, where female matchworkers had fought for their workplace
James Keir Hardie
rights. Close to Beckton Gas Works, West Ham returned a pioneering socialist MP in 1892, James Keir Hardie. Tom Mann’s grassroots organising in workplace struggles prepared him for a pivotal role in the growth of the syndicalist movement that believed true political advances would come only through economic struggles.
Ben Tillett developed his self-confidence and showed courage in the face of powerful enemies. He urged the next generation of activists to be brave and radical, telling students at Ruskin (trade union) College in 1913: ‘I don’t want you to be statesmen, don’t for God’s sake be politicians: they have always been evils. I want you to be idealists.’ Unfortunately, he failed to follow his own advice. He became the MP for Salford, Manchester, in 1917, and moved to the right politically, but others continued the grassroots rebellion.
Afterword from the following chapter in the book:
(One of the many industrial disputes that took place during the time of the 1889 dock Strike was a strike by immigrant Jewish tailors for a 12-hour day – instead of 14-18 hours. Ben Tillett had a very positive role to play here but one that stood in contradiction to his oft-stated views about Jewish immigrants.)
Four weeks into the tailors’ strike, employers refused to compromise and strike funds were almost exhausted. Stitchers, cutters and pressers faced the grim prospect of returning to work having won nothing. But, emboldened by the ‘Strike Fever’, a tailors’ delegation headed for the Wade’s Arms, in Jeremiah Street, Poplar, to lobby the Docks Strike Committee.
Many dockers were immigrants too, or sons of immigrants – Catholics from the Emerald Isle. As Jews swarmed into Whitechapel, the Irish community shuffled closer to the docks. Stepney became a patchwork of mainly Jewish and Irish enclaves plus seafarers from India, China and Somalia; Italians and Greeks selling food provisions; and German bakers and sugar refiners. But this was no melting pot. Communities kept to their own familiar streets. Physical confrontations, like today’s postcode wars, were commonplace among young Jews and Catholics
Late in life the former dockers’ leader Ben Tillett told [a gathering of] Jewish trade unionists that he first became an agitator in Riga, in 1877, where he disembarked with other sailors. At the market square, local police grinned while young wealthy Russians intimidated Jewish stallholders. Tillett saw an old Jew thrown to the ground. ‘As the young Russian lifted his foot to kick [him] I lifted it higher and got him down,’ he recounted. The British sailors cleared the police from the square, too.
Tillett saw how Jews suffered under Tsarism. Yet, in the late 1880s, he described Jewish
Ben Tillett speaking alongside and in support of Jewish workers
immigrants as the ‘dregs and scum of the continent’ who ‘make more foetid, putrid and congested, our already overcrowded slums’. He told one gathering of Jewish workers: ‘You are our brothers and we will do our duty by you, but we wish you had not come.’ However, after the tailors’ delegation outlined their case, the Dock Strike committee promised £100 – the largest donation the tailors received throughout their dispute. With their strike fund refreshed, they now had the upper hand. Their employers could not afford to suspend production much longer and caved in by the beginning of October. Despite Tillett’s antipathy towards immigrants, Irish Catholic dockers’ solidarity helped to secure victory for immigrant Jewish workers.
…(T)wo months later… a Federation of East London Labour Unions was launched at Mile End’s Great Assembly Hall. The Eastern Post reported: ‘2,800 were present … and speeches were made in different languages and translated.’ Non-Jewish union leaders, such as Tillett and Mann, spoke alongside Jewish militants representing tailors, cap-makers, stickmakers, furriers and carpenters. The Chair, Charles Adams, was tasked by the Alliance Cabinet Makers’ Association with organising Jewish immigrant carpenters, chaired. He said ‘ … if ever labour is to rise successfully … it must rise as a whole … This new organisation must be composed of people of all creeds and of all nations’, and never let employers ‘exploit one against the other’.
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