PortCities London

The Great Dock Strike of 1889

Mobilizing support
 

Original entrance to the East India Docks.
View full size imageThe dockers established pickets at the gates of the East India Docks. © NMM

Picketing the docks

The Strike Committee organised mass meetings and established pickets outside the dock gates. They persuaded men still at work and 'blacklegs' to come out on strike.

As Tillett recalled, 'We had 16,000 pickets on at one time under their Captains, Lieutenants, and Sergeants, divided and sub-divided with military precision'.

Intimidation?

As the men gathered at the dock gates there were accusations that they were intimidating those who stayed at work. One observer wrote to The Times to complain.

The coal heavers' float during a procession in the 1889 strike
View full size imageThe coal heavers' float in a procession during the 1889 strike. © NMM
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Sir, - During this week I have witnessed the most open intimidation practised by the men on strike - howling crowds going from dock to dock and warehouse to warehouse, stopping business and threatening vengeance on all who did not comply with their demands, until now there are thousands who are out who had no desire to strike, but were compelled to do so ... those who dare to work for their wages are being brutally maltreated and threatened with worse if they dare attempt to work in defiance of the strikers' wishes. I saw several men severely injured today on Tower Hill (the blood being made to fly in all directions) by gangs of strikers ... What are
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the authorities for if not to protect peaceable citizens in earning an honest living? A LOVER OF FREEDOM

The Times, 24 August 1889.

During the strike, 22-year-old Richard Groves was charged with assault and with threatening two men. His colleague, Alfred Kreamer, aged 49, was charged with intimidating several people. On the whole, however, it was peaceful and the strikers showed remarkable self-restraint.

The dockers march

John Burns addressing a meeting during the strike of 1889
View full size imageJohn Burns addressing a meeting during the strike of 1889. © NMM

The strike leaders, aware of the need for public support, organized a series of well-disciplined marches. Daily processions of strikers made their way from the East End into the City and to Tower Hill, where they listened to speeches by the strike leaders.

Money was collected from onlookers and used to feed the strikers and their families. Through collections and letters £11,700 was raised.

Supporting the strike

Keir Hardie
View full size imageKeir Hardie supported the dockers during the 1889 strike. © NMM

Ben Tillett was active in the socialist movement and was able to persuade other activists, including Mann, Burns, Will Thorne (1857-1946), Eleanor Marx (1855-1898) and James Keir Hardie (1856-1915), to help the 20,000 men on strike.

Tom Mann took on the enormous task of organizing relief, aided by John Burn's wife and Eleanor Marx. Organizations such as the Salvation Army and John Trevor's Labour Church also raised money for the strikers and their families.

At their hall at 272 Whitechapel Road, the Salvation Army supplied nearly 10,000 loaves in a day. Church missions opened soup kitchens to supply free meals. Even the shopkeepers were supporting the strike by giving relief to those in need.

Public sympathy

'The poor docker's baby'.
View full size image'The poor docker's baby'. © NMM
The dockers' cause was greatly aided by the exposure of docklands poverty in Booth's investigations and by the publicity generated by the House of Lords Committee on Sweating in 1888.

The Lords Committee had paid particular attention to the exploitation of dock labourers. The strikers also benefited from sympathetic press coverage. The East London Advertiser paid tribute to the orderly behaviour of the strikers as they marched through the City:

Father Neptune in the procession
View full size imageFather Neptune in the procession. © NMM
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It was impossible not to admire the self control of those who could in ten minutes have sacked every shop within a mile and satisfied the craving of nature. Contrast this crowd with the French mob which cried hoarse with passion "Give us bread". Not so the English docker, independent still in his direst straits. "Give me work" he says and in this case a rider is added
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and "pay me fairly". That is the grit of the whole matter, a fair wage.

The East London Advertiser, 24 August 1889.





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