A fluctuating trade
|Unloading 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.
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.
|Coal whippers unloading a collier. © NMM|
|Old dock hands. © NMM|
Most workers in the docks were casual labourers taken on for the day. Sometimes they would be taken on only for a few hours. Twice a day there was a 'call-on' at each of the docks when labour was hired for short periods.
Only the lucky few would be selected, the rest would be sent home without payment. The employers wanted to have a large number of men available for work but they did not want to pay them when there was no work.
|Engaging dock labourers at the West India Docks, 1886. © NMM|
Ben Tillett of the dockers' union described the 'call-on':
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 cattlemarket, picking and 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.
Ben Tillett, A Brief History of the Dockers Union (1910). The call-on generated much anger among the dockers.
|Boys from Snowfields School in Bermondsey. © NMM|
The casual nature of much of their work meant that the dockers did not receive a regular income and periods of unemployment meant no income at all unless they could find alternative work.
The dockers and their families therefore existed in a state of acute poverty.
|Backyard of one of the lodging houses in Mill Lane Deptford. © NMM|
Families relying on an income based on casual work often struggled to obtain enough food and were forced to rely on charity. They could only afford basic accommodation.
Builders knew that they would never be able to charge the poor high rents, so they built their houses quickly and cheaply. Houses were often without facilities such as bathrooms and toilets.
|Slum housing at Snowfields, Bermondsey. © NMM|
Sometimes houses were divided in half to accommodate two families. But this often meant that one family had to make do without a supply of drinking water.
The 1890 Housing Act made it the responsibility of local councils to provide tenants with decent accommodation. This gradually improved things, but conditions remained bad well into the 20th century.
The poverty in which the dockers and their families lived caused great resentment and helped cause the great strike of 1889.
|Counter commemorating the London Riggers and Mariners Union. © NMM|
By 1888 only 5% of the national labour force were union members. They tended to be skilled craftsmen and workers in the textile and mining industries.
In the port of London only skilled men like engineers, shipwrights, carpenters and riggers were unionised.
However, the success of the matchgirls' strike at Bryant and May's Bow factory in July 1888 encouraged unskilled workers to form unions and fight for better conditions in a period in which unemployment was falling. Gas workers and women in unorganised casual work went on strike and joined unions for the first time.
|The match girls at Bryant & May. © NMM|
Ben Tillett (1859-1943), General Secretary of the Tea Operatives and General Labourers' Association, was one of those who had been inspired by the Matchgirls Union.
|Ben Tillett of the Dockers' Union. © NMM|
In the summer of 1889 Tillett and his union became involved in a dispute over pay and conditions.