London Dockers' Strike

By 1888 only 5% of the labour force were members of trade unions. Those who were, tended to be skilled craftsman and workers in the textile and mining industries. The success of the Bryant & May strike encouraged other unskilled workers in Britain to consider the possibility of forming unions.

Ben Tillett, General Secretary of the Tea Operatives & General Labourers' Association, was one of those who had been inspired by what Annie Besant had achieved with her Matchgirls Union. Tillett explained how dockers in London were treated: "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."

In the summer of 1889 Tillett and his union became involved in a dispute over pay and conditions. The men who worked at the London Docks demanded four hours continuous work at a time and a minimum rate of sixpence an hour. The dockers went on strike but their employers were confident that they would be able to starve the men back to work. Tillett described the role played by Tom Mann in this strike: "I placed Tom Mann in charge of the difficult duty of seeing that the system of relief was systematically organised. The strikers, I might even say the dockers in general, involved in the stoppage of work, were recipients of relief. They were all desperately in need and when it was announced that relief tickets were to be distributed some thousands of them gathered before the door of the dingy little coffee tavern where Tom Mann and his helpers, having just received the relief tickets from the printers, were preparing to issue them."

Beatrice Potter was one of those who observed these events: "The dock strike becoming more and more exciting - even watched at a distance. Originally 500 casuals marched out of the West and East India Docks - in another day the strike spread to the neighbouring docks - in a week half East London was out. For the first time a general strike of labour, not on account of the vast majority of strikers, but to enforce the claims to a decent livelihood of some 3,000 men. The hero of the scene, John Burns the socialist, who seems for the time to have the East London working men at his feet, with Ben Tillett as his lieutenant and ostensible representative of the dockers."

The Secret of England's Greatness: 5d per hourLivingstone Hopkins, The Australian Bulletin (August, 1889)
The Secret of England's Greatness: 5d per hour
Livingstone Hopkins, The Australian Bulletin (August, 1889)

Ben Tillett was active in the socialist movement and was able to persuade several friends, including John Burns, Will Thorne, Eleanor Marx, H. M. Hyndman, James Keir Hardie and Henry Hyde Champion, to help the 10,000 men on strike. Tillett found Champion especially helpful: "Our principal Press officer was the Socialist journalist, Henry Hyde Champion, one of the founders of the Fabian Society. Although he was in no way officially connected with the Dockers' Strike, he rendered us very valuable help.... He founded and edited the Labour Elector, which became the official, or semi-official, organ of the Strike Committee."

Organizations such as the Salvation Army and the Labour Church also raised money for the strikers and their families. Trade Unions in Australia sent over £30,000 to help the dockers to continue the struggle. As H. M. Hyndman pointed out: "Suddenly the big contribution of 30,000 came from Australia in one lump, and put a new face on the whole matter. The men and the leaders were immensely encouraged; the employers, who really had a very bad case, were proportionally depressed. It at once became possible to carry on the strike for a little time longer." After five weeks the employers accepted defeat and granted all the dockers' main demands. Beatrice Potter wrote in her diary: "The dock strike has ended in a brilliant victory to the men; all their demands (with the exception of fixed times for taking on) conceded - the concessions come into force in November."

John Burns believed an important lesson had been learnt: "Still more important perhaps, is the fact that labour of the humbler kind has shown its capacity to organise itself; its solidarity; its ability. The labourer has learned that combination can lead him to anything and everything. He has tasted success as the immediate fruit of combination, and he knows that the harvest he has just reaped is not the utmost he can look to gain. Conquering himself, he has learned that he can conquer the world of capital whose generals have been the most ruthless of his oppressors."

After the successful strike, the dockers formed a new General Labourers' Union. Ben Tillett was elected General Secretary and Tom Mann became the union's first President. In London alone, 20,000 men joined this new union. Tillett and Mann wrote a pamphlet together called the New Unionism, where they outlined their socialist views and explained how their ideal was a "cooperative commonwealth".

The Dockers' Strike was a turning-point in the history of trade unionism. Over the next few years a large number of unskilled workers joined trade unions. Between 1892 and 1899 membership of trade unions increased from 1,500,000 to over 2,000,000.

John Tenniel, commented on the Dock Strikein Punch Magazine (14th September, 1889)
John Tenniel, commented on the Dock Strike
in Punch Magazine (14th September, 1889)
© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Ben Tillett described work as a London docker at the end of the 19th century in his book A Brief History of the Dockers Union (1910)

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.

(2) In his book, Memories and Reflections, the trade union leader, Ben Tillett described the work that Tom Mann did for the Dockers' Strike in 1889.

I placed Tom Mann in charge of the difficult duty of seeing that the system of relief was systematically organised. The strikers, I might even say the dockers in general, involved in the stoppage of work, were recipients of relief. They were all desperately in need and when it was announced that relief tickets were to be distributed some thousands of them gathered before the door of the dingy little coffee tavern where Tom Mann and his helpers, having just received the relief tickets from the printers, were preparing to issue them.

The crowd at the door seethed and boiled as each man struggled to get to the front, and pass through the tavern door, fearful that all the tickets would be gone before he was within hand's reach of the distributors. So,from the steps of the coffee tavern. Tom Mann appealed to them for order and discipline, assuring them that every one would get a ticket; and then, placing himself with his back to the door post, he jammed his foot on the opposite jamb and made every man pass in under his leg, holding that position for many hours, exhorting the men and keeping them in the utmost good humour.

(3) S. Holland, Chairman of the Dock Directors, interview on 16th August, 1889)

What the cost would be of granting the demands of the men, I cannot exactly say, but it would be at least £100,000 and that would mean we should have to raise our rates. We cannot afford an advance in wages, for it would either destroy any possibility of dividend to the shareholders of the joint companies or tend to drive shipping from the port. When the pinch comes, as come it must, the hopes of the strikers will receive a severe shock and I shall be surprised if there is any backbone left.

(4) John Burns, speech to dock workers (16th August, 1889)

Remember the match girls who won their strike and formed a union; take courage from the gas stokers who only a few weeks ago won the eight hour day.

(5) In his book, Memories and Reflections, the trade union leader, Ben Tillett described the work that Henry Hyde Champion did for the Dockers' Strike in 1889.

Our principal Press officer was the Socialist journalist, Henry Hyde Champion, one of the founders of the Fabian Society. Although he was in no way officially connected with the Dockers' Strike, he rendered us very valuable help. In some ways Champion was a remarkable man. He was the son of a Major-General and himself had served as an artillery officer, after leaving the University. But he abandoned the military career for journalism, and attached himself to the Socialist Movement. He founded and edited the Labour Elector, which became the official, or semi-official, organ of the Strike Committee.

(6) Ben Tillett later recalled how they raised money during Dockers' Strike of 1889.

In our marches we collected contributions in pennies, sixpences and shillings, from the clerks and City workers, who were touched perhaps to the point of sacrifice by the emblem of poverty and starvation carried in our procession. By these means, with the aid of the Press, money poured into our coffers from Trade Unions and public alike. Large sums came from abroad, especially from the British dominions, whose contributions alone amounted to over £30,000. Contributions from the public sent direct by letter or collected on our marches totalled nearly £12,000; more than £1,000 came in from our street box collections, and substantial amounts were obtained through the help of the star, the Pall Mall Gazette, the Labour Elector, and other papers.

(7) In her diary Beatrice Potter welcomed the London Dock Strike (29th August, 1889)

The dock strike becoming more and more exciting - even watched at a distance. Originally 500 casuals marched out of the West and East India Docks - in another day the strike spread to the neighbouring docks - in a week half East London was out. For the first time a general strike of labour, not on account of the vast majority of strikers, but to enforce the claims to a decent livelihood of some 3,000 men. The hero of the scene, John Burns the socialist, who seems for the time to have the East London working men at his feet, with Ben Tillett as his lieutenant and ostensible representative of the dockers.

The strike is intensely interesting to me personally, as proving or disproving, in any case modifying, my generalization on 'Dock Life'. Certainly the solidarity of labour at the East end is a new thought to me - the dock labourers have not yet proved themselves capable of permanent organization but they have shown the capacity for common action. And what is more important, an extraordinary manifestation of practical sympathy, of effectual help, has been evoked among all classes in East London, skilled artisans making common cause with casuals, publicans, pawnbrokers and tradesmen supporting them.

(8) H. H. Hyndman, Further Reminiscences (1912).

Suddenly the big contribution of 30,000 came from Australia in one lump, and put a new face on the whole matter. The men and the leaders were immensely encouraged; the employers, who really had a very bad case, were proportionally depressed. It at once became possible to carry on the strike for a little time longer.

(9) Beatrice Webb recorded the end of the Dock Strike in her diary (22nd September, 1889)

The dock strike has ended in a brilliant victory to the men; all their demands (with the exception of fixed times for taking on) conceded - the concessions come into force in November. Burns' parting words "Be good to your wives and your children and remember what a man who drinks water can do". Fifty thousand pounds subscribed (£24,000 from Australia), pressure from all other capitalist interests, and public opinion of all classes have carried the dockers through to victory.

(10) During the strike Cardinal Manning, leader of the Catholic Church in Britain, became involved in negotiating an end to the Dockers' Strike.

From the first Cardinal Manning showed himself to be the dockers' friend, though he had family connections in the shipping interests, represented on the other side. Our demands were too reasonable, too moderate, to be set aside by an intelligence so fine, a spirit so lofty, as that which animated the frail, tall figure with its saintly, emaciated face, and the strangely compelling eyes.

On our side there was no margin for concession. We had made no extravagant demands. The Cardinal's diplomacy, suave, subtle, ineffably courteous to all parties concerned, yet exercised with the suggestion of authority. He endorsed with a sense of responsibility the two main claims of the dockers for the 6d. minimum, and recognition of the Union.

(11) John Burns, The Great Strike (1889)

Still more important perhaps, is the fact that labour of the humbler kind has shown its capacity to organise itself; its solidarity; its ability. The labourer has learned that combination can lead him to anything and everything. He has tasted success as the immediate fruit of combination, and he knows that the harvest he has just reaped is not the utmost he can look to gain. Conquering himself, he has learned that he can conquer the world of capital whose generals have been the most ruthless of his oppressors.