PortCities London

Labour unrest in the port after 1889

‘Oh God, strike Lord Devonport dead’

The 1911 strike

Police and strike-breakers during the 1911 strike.
View full size imagePolice and strike-breakers during the 1911 strike. © NMM
After 1890 there was no serious industrial unrest in the port until 1911. In that year there was a strike led by the recently formed National Transport Workers Federation (NTWF). Sixteen unions involved in dock work, road haulage and passenger transport had formed the Federation.

Strike of the National Union of Dock. Labourers
View full size imageStrike of the National Union of Dock Labourers, 1911. © NMM

Harry Gosling of the Amalgamated Society of Waterman & Lighterman was elected president. The new union immediately approached the Port of London Authority (PLA) for:

  • a wage increase to from 6d (six pence) to 8d (eight pence) an hour
  • improved conditions
  • formal recognition of all unions.

Elsewhere in Britain, other branches of the NTWF went on strike in what soon became a national dispute.

Devonport's offer

Port of London Authority flag.
View full size imageFlag of the Port of London Authority. © NMM

Lord Devonport, the Chairman of the PLA, consulted the dock employers, wharfingers and shipowners. He offered:

  • 7d (seven pence) an hour 
  • a one-hour reduction in the working day.

The cost to the employers would have been £200,000 a year. But the union, who had won no meaningful improvements since 1889, rejected it.

The employers resist

Ben Tillett of the Dockers Union.
View full size imageBen Tillett of the Dockers Union. © NMM

Devonport refused to negotiate and publicly declared that he would starve the men back to work.

Ben Tillett led a mass meeting of dockers on Tower Hill in a prayer: ‘Oh God, strike Lord Devonport dead’.

After a two-week strike the dockers were forced to return to work on Devonport’s terms.