PortCities London

The Great Dock Strike of 1889

The spark
 

The 'Lady Armstrong'

The Lady Armstong
View full size imageThe Lady Armstrong. © NMM
The dock strike began over a dispute about 'plus' money during the unloading of the Lady Armstrong in the West India Docks. 'Plus' money was a bonus paid for completing work quickly. The East and West India Dock Company had cut their 'plus' rates to attract ships into their own docks rather than others.

Unloading a sugar cargo at the West India Docks.
View full size imageUnloading a sugar cargo at the West India Docks, September 1889. © NMM
A trade depression and an oversupply of docks and warehousing led to fierce competition between the rival companies. The cut in payments provided the opportunity for long-held grievances among the workforce to surface.

 

The dockers walk out

A meeting outside the West India Dock gates.
View full size imageA meeting outside the West India Dock gates. © NMM

Led by Ben Tillet, the men in the West India Dock struck on 14 August and immediately started persuading other dockers to join them. The Dockers' Union had no funds and needed help.

The support they needed came when the Amalgamated Stevedores Union, under Tom McCarthy, joined the strike. Not only did they carry high status in the port but their work was essential to the running of the docks.

Support from the stevedores

The stevedores' union issued a manifesto, entitled To the Trade Unionists and People of London. This called on other workers to support the dockers:

The stevedores' float, part of a procession assembled in the East India Dock Road.
View full size imageThe stevedores' float, part of a procession assembled in the East India Dock Road. © NMM
Quotation marks left
Friends and Fellow Workmen. The dock labourers are on strike and asking for an advance in wages ... 6d. per hour daytime and 8d. per hour overtime. The work is of the most precarious nature, three hours being the average amount per day obtained by the docker.

We, the Union of the Stevedores of London, knowing the condition of the dock labourers, have determined to support their movement by every lawful means in our power...

Leader of the procession and the coalies' car.
View full size imageLeader of the procession and the coalies' car. © NMM
We now appeal to members of all trade unions for joint action with us, and especially those whose work is in connection with shipping - engineers and fitters, boiler makers, ships' carpenters, etc. and also the coal heavers, ballast men and lightermen. We
Quotation marks right
also appeal to the public at large for contributions and support on behalf of the dock labourers.

Ben Tillett, Memories and Reflections, (London, 1931).





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