PortCities London

The Great Dock Strike of 1889

The situation on the eve of the strike

A fluctuating trade

Unloading frozen meat from the Clan MacDougall in the Port of London.
View full size imageUnloading frozen meat from the Clan MacDougall in the Port of London. © NMM

Until the late 19th century, much of the trade of the port was seasonal. Sugar came from the West Indies, timber from the north, tea and spices from the Far East. It was difficult to predict when ships would arrive since bad weather could delay a fleet.

The number of ships arriving during a period of four successive weeks in 1861 at the West India Dock was 42, 131, 209 and 85. On some days there were many ships in the docks, on others very few.

Coal whippers discharging a collier.
View full size imageCoal whippers unloading a collier. © NMM
There was very little mechanisation - the loading and discharging of ships was highly labour-intensive. Demand for men varied from day to day because there was very little advance notice that a ship was arriving. The dock companies only took on labourers when trade picked up and they needed them.

The 'call-on'

Old dock hands.
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