PortCities London

Labour unrest in the port after 1889

Bevin and the formation of the Transport & General Workers Union

'The Dockers' KC' 

Coat of arms of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers' Union.
View full size imageThe Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers Union helped form the TGWU. © NMM

Harry Gosling continued to campaign for further union amalgamation and in June 1913, the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers Union joined the National Transport Workers Federation (NTWF).

The organization was strengthened by the election of Ernest Bevin (1881-1951) to the executive. Gosling and Bevin worked closely together in their efforts to make the NTWF a powerful union.

In 1919-20 Bevin earned himself the nickname ‘the Dockers’ KC’ when he secured 16 shillings (80p) a day for a 44-hour week.


Loading general cargo on the Coromandel (1949) at King George V Dock.
View full size imageStevedores loading cargo at King George V Dock. Their union did not join the TGWU. © NMM

In 1922, Bevin and Gosling were instrumental in establishing the Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU). The TGWU united nearly 50 organizations into the world's largest union.

However, Bevin and Gosling failed to attract all dockworkers to the T&G. The stevedores remained separate and their union even began to poach members from the TGWU. This began decades of rivalry between the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers Union and the TGWU.

The dockers defeated

Dockers' march during the strike of July 1923.
View full size imageDockers' march during the strike of July 1923. © NMM

Between the World Wars labour relations in the port remained poor. In 1923 the employers proposed a reduction in wages from 8s (40p) to 5s 6d (28p) for the four-hour minimum employment period.

The dockers went on strike, but after being out for 8 weeks were forced back to work.

Victory secured

Discharging frozen mutton and lamb from Australia on the Clan Macdougall.
View full size imageThe dockers fought to improve their working conditions and wages. © NMM

Eight months later Bevin demanded 7s (35p) for the half-day. The employers offered only 6s (30p). Bevin went to see Devonport at the PLA who told him: ‘Our offer is one shilling – do what you will’.

He seems to have said something more, for Bevin later told a Court of Inquiry that he would never again negotiate with Devonport unless he apologized for a comment that Bevin called ‘the greatest insult ever offered by an employer to a trade union leader’. Bevin called another strike. It was a short struggle that the union won.

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