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The Great Dock Strike of 1889

The situation on the eve of the strike
The spark
The strike spreads
Mobilizing support
Australia to the rescue
The Mansion House Committee
Effects of the strike
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Women during the strike

Pawnbrokers shop
View full size imagePawnbroker's shop. © NMM

While the men were on strike money was not coming into the house for food. Women therefore wandered the streets for hours searching for something to eat.

Everything that could be of any value was pawned. Suits, boots, handkerchiefs, jackets, work tools, dress material, dresses, shawls, underclothes, shirts, trousers, waistcoats, and even the bedding on which the families slept.


No rent!

The dock labourers' strike: Sweethearts and wives
View full size imageThe dock labourers' strike: Sweethearts and wives.         © NMM

Landlords who tried to collect their rents faced resistance. A white banner was hung across Hungerford Street, Commercial Road, which said 'As we are on strike landlords need not call.'

Another at the top of Star Street, Commercial Road read:

Quotation marks left
Our husbands are on strike; for the wives it is not honey,
And we all think it is right not to pay the landlord's money,
Everyone is on strike, so landlords do not be offended;
Quotation marks right

The rent that's due we'll pay you when the strike is ended.

Unloading port wine from Oporto at London Docks.
View full size imageWith the dockers and stevedores on strike produce remained on the quayside waiting to be loaded or stored. © NMM
At first food was distributed to dockers and their families. Soon, shilling [5p] food tickets, which were accepted by local tradesmen, were issued instead. However, despite appeals for help, not enough money was coming in to meet the needs of the increasing numbers on strike.

As the strike progressed into its second and third weeks, there was great hardship in East London. By the end of August many dockers and their families were starving.

The employers' view

The employers were now confident that they would be able to force the men back to work:

Quotation marks left
What the cost would be of granting the demands of the men, I cannot exactly say, but it would be at least £100,000 and that would mean we should have to raise our rates.

We cannot afford an advance in wages, for it would either destroy any possibility of dividend to the shareholders of the joint companies or tend to drive shipping from the port. When the pinch comes, as come it must, the hopes of the strikers will receive a severe shock and I shall be

Quotation marks right
surprised if there is any backbone left.

Mr Holland, Chairman of the Dock Directors, interview on 16 August, 1889.

Medal commemorating the opening of Tilbury deep water docks, 1886.
View full size imageThe East and West India Dock Company was one of the employers opposed to the strike. © NMM

The Thames during the strike: Idle steamers waiting for the stevedores.
View full size imageThe Thames during the strike: Idle steamers waiting for the stevedores. © NMM

During the strike the port was at a standstill and the dock companies were losing money.

Despite this, they believed that giving into the dockers' demands would set a dangerous precedent.

Dock company

Find out more
GalleriesImages of protest.
StoriesPowering the City
Gas and electricity generation on the Thames
StoriesMany hands: Trades of the Port of London, 1850-1980
Find out what it was like to work in the Port of London
StoriesSocial conditions in the 19th century port
Life in the dockland slums
StoriesThe 19th-century port
Docks and industry transform the Thames
StoriesThames Ironworks
Building for London and the world
StoriesLabour unrest in the port after 1889
Industrial relations in the Port of London were strained throughout the 20th century
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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