Great London dock strike, 1889

This is the story of the Great London dock strike of 1889 and the successful fight for the “docker’s tanner”.

By the late 1880s, the trade union movement had become, if not quite a part of the Liberal establishment, then at least a respectable body whose existence would do little to put the fear of insurrection into the authorities.

dockworkers certificate
Membership certificate of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union

In its report to the TUC conference of 1888, the governing parliamentary committee was able to note with some satisfaction:
“We congratulate the Trades on the comparative industrial peace experienced since our last meeting. No great national labour contest has occurred to strain the resources of our Unions or to disturb the relations between capital and labour.”

Events on the London Docks the following summer would end the cosy consensus as thousands of casual workers who had been largely excluded from trade unionism until then went on strike for the security of 6d an hour.

Despite the difficulty of union organisation on the docks, there had been numerous small strikes down the years. The first indications were that a dispute involving the sailing ship Lady Armstrong at South West India Dock in early August 1889 would be just another of these.

The argument over payment of half a penny an hour bonus was first drawn to the attention of Ben Tillett, secretary of the Tea Operatives’ and General Labourers’ Union on 12 August. Under his guidance, the men would draw up a set of demands including the famous “dockers; tanner”, the right to a minimum four hours’ work a day and 8d an hour overtime.

Not waiting for the employers to respond, however, the dockers walked out on 14 August and the strike began to spread rapidly.
Realising the scale of the dispute, Tillett called in the more experienced Tom Mann, who was swiftly joined by the even better known labour leader John Burns, and within two days the three were leading a demonstration of 6,000 men.

As the strike spread, it won the support of the two unions representing the better-paid stevedores, and that of the newly formed Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, all of whom joined forces under a single strike committee. By 22 August, 100,000 men would be on strike.

Although this level of industrial action was unprecedented in the docks, the strike is perhaps best remembered for the great marches of dockers and their families which to Hyde Park, and for the high level of public support they gained.

George Julian Harney, the veteran Chartist leader now in his 70s, would write for the Newcastle Chronicle:

“Not since the high and palmy days of Chartism have I witnessed any movement corresponding in importance and interest to the great strike of 1889.”

The organisation of the dispute became legendary. In addition to Tillett, Man and Burns, H H Champion and Eleanor Marx of the Social Democratic Federation lent their services, as did Will Crooks of the coopers’ union.

Some 25 miles to the east, Henry Orbell, president of Tillett’s small union reluctantly took charge but proved adroit at maintaining the strike and convincing a group of strike-breakers brought in from Liverpool to return home.

Under Mann, £1,200 was spent from the strike fund to keep 15,000 pickets and banner carriers on duty. They were immensely effective at blockading the docks, with the engineers at Commercial Docks among the few significant groups to carry on working.

The strike also won backing from Sidney Buxton, the radical Liberal MP for Poplar, and other public figures. Cardinal Manning, the head of the Catholic church in England, and the Salvation Army made great efforts to feed the dockers and their families.

But the most significant support came from the public. A final balance sheet drawn up after the strike finished showed that a total of £46,999 had been raised, including £30,423 from “the colonies” – mostly from workers on the Australian waterfronts.

As the strike went on, some attempts were made by the strike committee to turn the dispute into a general strike, and a manifesto issued on 29 August called on all London workers to join them on the following Monday.

Realising that this would alienate much of their support in other unions, Ben Tillett, Frederick Engels and Eleanor Marx used their influence to reign in these rasher demands.

At the same time, and at the request of the strike leaders, Cardinal Manning now began to play a crucial part in mediating with the dock company directors. With the dock workers adamant in their demand for 6d an hour, the debate came down to the date at which the new rates would become effective.

On 14 September, a settlement was finally agreed and the men returned to work. They had achieved 6d an hour and 8d for overtime, a minimum four-hour call-on guaranteeing at least 2 shillings a day, and other concessions.

As importantly, the tea operatives’ union had grown from a few hundred members at the start of the strike to an organisation 18,000 strong. Immediately after the strike it became the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers Union. Within three months it had 30,000 members.

In due course, the union would become one of the founders of the Transport and General Workers Union.