Tom Mann’s Memoirs, 1923

Book one: Europe

IX. International Labour Organisation
1896 to 1898

First published: 1923
Publisher: The Labour Publishing Company Limited, 38 Great Ormond Street, London WC I
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter

I had maintained my relationship with the various sections of transport workers all this while, and the necessity for a more definite organisation on international lines was fully appreciated, so in June 1896, there was established the International Federation of Ship, Dock, and River Workers, I became the president of this organisation. The objects aimed at by the federation were “the complete organisation of all the men engaged in the occupations named in order to raise wages, reduce working hours, get gangs properly constituted, check overtime, insist upon adequate inspection of gear, and secure for sailors and firemen proper rations, ample accommodation, and a satisfactory manning scale. Further, the federation, recognising the considerable differences in wages paid in different ports for the same work at home and abroad, seeks to establish, as far as may be possible, a uniform rate of pay for the same class of work in all ports, and to establish a recognised working day and other regulations in the ports in the world.”

The shipowners and other firms connected with port work had repeatedly complained that the men in British ports were enforcing claims altogether in excess of what was paid for similar work in continental ports. There was some truth in this, and the dockers and seamen had endeavoured by means of extending organisation to level matters; and anyhow we believed fervently in international organisation. From past experience we knew that the continental shipowners and others were not likely to give our efforts a kindly welcome; but whatever the risks might be, we knew that visits to foreign ports would be essential. What could be done by letter was done with not much result other than to get from our foreign workmates the message: “We are anxious to organise; can you help us?” We were chiefly concerned to deal with Hamburg, Antwerp, and Rotterdam, and we laid our plans to deal with these.

Havelock Wilson and I were sent by our federation, first to Rotterdam, and thence to Antwerp. We accomplished the mission successfully, held meetings in both ports, got groups organised, and in touch with the British unions. It was not long, however, before the Belgian authorities endeavoured to stop our activities. In many cases our delegates were arrested on landing at Antwerp, and if not then, as soon as they became active in the work of organisation. In this manner Ben Tillett was arrested and imprisoned under very uncomfortable conditions. The matter was taken up by the British Foreign Office and negotiations resulted in his release. Others were arrested in turn, but not all, and in the long run a considerable stimulus was given to organisation, with consequent improvement in conditions.

We were genuinely anxious to avoid stoppages of work, and to bring about agreements by negotiation; had the employers been agreeable, this would have taken place.

I was requested by the Hamburg workers to visit that port, as they were anxious to line up as part of the federation. Knowing that no meetings could be held by Germans, and still less foreigners, without police permission, I obtained the regulation form, filled it up, and sent it to the authorities at Hamburg, stating I wished to hold meetings on trade unionism, and giving all details. I received a duly signed authorisation to hold such meetings; this was in November 1896. I set out from London and reached Hamburg all right, but early the same day I was arrested. On being brought before the officials I produced the authorisation, the validity of which was admitted, but since it had been issued other developments had taken place. The authorisation was withdrawn, and an order of expulsion was issued instead. I claimed my right to confer with the British consul, and was taken to the consulate. After consultation, the vice-consul accompanied me to the Stadthaus to talk over the matter. As the vice-consul was stating in some detail who I was, etc, the official, Herr Ravolovski, who was seated at his desk, said: “Yes, yes ; we know, we know.”

Opening a drawer in his desk, he pulled out a number of newspaper cuttings, giving details of meetings I had addressed. It was plain to me that the German officials knew considerably more about my doings than did the British. I had to depart by the first boat available. This was a small craft of a thousand tons or less that regularly traded to the Thames. Under favourable conditions she could only travel at nine knots an hour, but under the unfavourable winds that we encountered she could not make more than six knots. However, I reached London safely, and the Germans held the meetings that I should have been present at.

The expulsion served our purpose quite as well as if I had been allowed to address the meetings, probably better. The port workers of Hamburg enrolled rapidly, and in December the corn porters attempted negotiations to obtain increased wages. Negotiations failed, so they struck work and soon succeeded. Other sections followed, and the ship- owners decided to resist. In a few days the port of Hamburg was practically at a standstill, and again they sent to us in London for someone from the federation to proceed there. Notwithstanding my recent expulsion, I went there again, in my presidential capacity, being authorised by the executive to act on its behalf. I escaped troublesome attention from the police, and reached my destination. It was my duty to get in touch with the labour forces, particularly the Trades Council of Altona, to ascertain what were the chances of success, and to decide in what way help could be rendered by the federation.

I watched developments for three days. The last of these was very exciting. I had been with others visiting each vessel that was working; when the crew could understand English I addressed the men, urging them to desist and to make common cause. We were half-a-dozen in a steam launch, and the weather was bitterly cold. Having done my utmost, I made my way with Herr von Elm, socialist member of the Reichstag for Schleswig-Holstein, to his home for a meal. Afterwards I went out for a stroll. An officer of police approached me: result — I was taken to the Stadthaus, charged, and put into a cell until the chief official should arrive. I had returned to Hamburg contrary to the terms of the expulsion order of six weeks earlier. Net result — I was again expelled on the only boat going to England, sailing for Hull. So to Hull I was sent; but again it served our purpose. These interferences with our work aroused increasing interest on the part of some other sections, and made for improved international organisation. When I reached London I was surprised to find that the Daily Graphic artist had been allowed to sketch cell 28 in the Stadthaus, the cell I had occupied. An excellent picture of it was published on December 23, 1896.

Our efforts at international organisation were attended with considerable success, and quite a number of our active men had to serve brief spells in prison; but nothing worse happened.

The year 1897 found us very busy, and this work in the industrial field took up the greater part of my time. I wrote a pamphlet called The Dockers and Sailors in 1897. In this I dealt with the number of workers seeking employment in the various ports, not of Britain only but of Europe, and the fluctuating character of the work; the great trouble was the irregularity of employment.

In the early part of 1897 we had an International Transport Workers Conference in London, attended by delegates from France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Spain and Britain. It gave a healthy stimulus to international organisation. Here is a list of the officers and the members of the council of the new body:

President: Tom Mann (London); vice-presidents: J.H. Wilson, MP (London); ; J. Rathier (Le Havre). Central Council: H.W. Kay. Dock, Wharf, Riverside, and General Labourers Union; James Sexton, National Union of Dock Labourers; Edward Catheray, National Sailors and Firemens Union; Harry Brill, National Amalgamated Coal Porters Union; J.N. Bell, National Amalgamated Union of Labour; Arthur Harris, Labour Protection League; D. Donovan, Thames Steamship Workers; C. Fisher, Amalgamated Association of Coal Porters (Winchmen); L.C. Janssens, Port Workers of Antwerp; John de Vries, Port Workers of Rotterdam; L. Neble, Port Workers of Marseilles. Head office: 181 Queen Victoria Street, London, EC.

Later in the year 1897, our French friends were anxious to have organisational effort carried on in their ports. A delegate from London, now filling a prominent position on a London newspaper, was sent to confer with the French and to co-operate in the arrangements. I was to go to continue the campaign subsequently. The pioneer delegate referred to was invited to address the trade union delegates at the Bourse du Travail, and did so. Apparently he spoke effectively, for he was deported in consequence.

It now devolved upon me to carry on the work. I reached Paris all right, and spent the better part of a week addressing what were technically termed private meetings organised by the Allemanists, ie, by the socialists grouped round Jean Allemane, an old Communard. This organisation insisted that all who joined the party must be members of a trade union. The French for trade union is syndicat, and those who were distinctively trade unionist by policy were named syndicalists, although the term had not yet become famous.

After this series of private meetings, it was announced that I was to address a public meeting. The comrades knew it was the intention of the authorities to prevent my doing so. I was, therefore, advised to write out my speech. It was translated into French, and a copy of it given to the then secretary of the French Railway Workers Union. He was to take my place if I was prevented from speaking. I was also advised, if arrested, to agree not to attempt to hold any meeting, or I should probably be forcibly detained and expelled. If I followed their advice they would see that I should address a meeting all right.

On the morning of the day that the public meeting was to be held in the evening, as I was leaving the hotel, a well-dressed man approached me, politely raising his hat. He informed me that he was connected with the police, and said I must accompany him to the Chief Commissioner. We drove there: I was put through the usual inordinately long list of questions, as to place of birth, parentage, etc, etc, exactly as if it had been in Berlin. Then an order of expulsion was read to me in English. I was told to sign it. If I were willing to give an assurance that I not only would not speak at the meeting, but would not attend it, I should be granted twenty-four hours longer in Paris; then I must leave. If I refused, I was to be deported forthwith. In any case, I should be kept under police supervision to ensure my not going to the meeting. Having given the required assurance, I was allowed to rejoin my friends, who were awaiting me. I told them that I was under police supervision, and they at once pointed out two individuals in plain clothes, some forty or fifty yards distant. These dogged our steps. I was not in the least perturbed by what was happening, for I was confident that the comrades would turn it all to good account.

At length we reached the house of Jean Allemane, and had a meal. By this time it was six in the evening, and the meeting was fixed for seven o’clock. All, save one, prepared to go to the meeting, but I was to remain in the house till they called for me. It was nearly eight o’clock when Allemane and others came in hurriedly and bustled me into a cab, telling me the meeting was going on splendidly, that G, the railwayman, had delivered every word of my speech, that the meeting would soon be over, and we were now going to take coffee. In a short time the cab pulled up at a large cafe, with every table occupied, except some that were reserved at one side of the huge room. To these my friends led me. Much cheering took place. I was told we were now under a private roof, that I could say what I liked, and need not worry about the time.

I then addressed this considerable gathering, and a most successful meeting was held. I noticed near to me a striking-looking lady, who had apparently been reporting my speech. I was told that the lady was known and trusted, and I was introduced to her. It was Madame Sorgue, and her report appeared in the Matin next morning. I was wondering if the police authorities would not take this as a violation of the arrangement, but there were many influential friends, especially municipal councilors, watching events, and they kept with me until at four in the afternoon the train steamed out of the station and I in it.

I have said that members of the Paris Municipal Council were co-operating in this propagandist effort. At the meeting of the council following upon my expulsion from France, a socialist councilor raised the question, charging the Prefect of Police with having exceeded his duty. He quoted the whole of the address I had prepared, the one which had been read at the public meeting by G of the Railwaymens Union. The councilor’s object was to get the greatest possible amount of propaganda out of it. A full report of the council’s proceedings is posted upon the door of every Mairie throughout Paris, and, therefore, my speech was made available for passers-by to read. The interpolation was so successful that the Paris Municipal Council carried a vote of censure upon Monsieur Lepin, the Chief of Police, for having expelled me. It was thought well to carry the matter still further, so the question was raised in the Chamber of Deputies; but here the vote went in the opposite direction.

Following upon this effort it became necessary to give attention to Scandinavia, and arrangements were made for me to visit Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Mr Charles Lindley, at one time connected with English shipping (now a member of the Upper House in Stockholm), kindly undertook to interpret for me in the Swedish cities and ports.

The inaugural meeting was at Gothenburg. I endeavoured to arrange with Mr Lindley that I should speak for ten minutes, and then he should interpret; and so on throughout the meeting. But he was entirely opposed to this; he said that I must not speak for more than two minutes at the outside, so that he could give an exact interpretation, or the critics would censure him strongly; I had to conform to this. It was a crowded gathering. In spite of all the difficulties, it was entirely successful, and was most enthusiastic.

Next morning, Charles Lindley brought me the newspapers, smiling brightly as he read out the descriptive accounts. One of the comments was upon the interpreter, saying: “He interpreted well, and performed an arduous task with much credit, but of course, it was not a literal interpretation; anyone to follow Mr Mann and give a literal interpretation would require a head as long as a horse.” Lindley considered this was a full justification of his insistence upon very short spells. The same plan was, therefore, adhered to at Helsingborg and elsewhere.

When we reached Malmo, two meetings were arranged at the Folkets Hus (People’s House). On the first night, Charles Lindley interpreted, and all went well. Next day, we were talking over affairs with the editor of the local socialist paper, Arbetet (Work), Mr Axel Danielson, a man standing about six feet three and weighing seventeen stones. Mrs Danielson, the editor’s wife, and a few other friends were also present. The question was raised whether it might not be an advantage to have a change of interpreter. I readily agreed if they had someone competent. It transpired that Mrs Danielson could speak English well, for although she had never been in England, she had lived some ten years in America. Mrs Danielson consented to interpret, provided her husband would promise not to attend the meeting, as she was sure his critical presence would make her nervous. Ultimately the kindly husband agreed to this, and the fair interpreter was willing I should speak for seven or eight minute spells uninterruptedly. All went well for about three-quarters of an hour, when suddenly she failed to rise to interpret, and looked very confused. I soon caught sight of her towering husband who had entered the hall, and was standing up some twenty yards from the platform. Those in the know enjoyed the temporary confusion, including the big husband, who, having given himself satisfaction, smilingly withdrew, and we continued successfully to the end.

Having crossed the sound from Malmo I was met at Copenhagen in grand style, the Social Democratic members of parliament having gathered to receive me, although my object was the furtherance of industrial organisation. I learned that one of the members of Parliament, Comrade Knudson, was to act as interpreter, and that the meeting was to be in the Folkets Hus, a very fine hall. I asked Mr Knudson if he had any special suggestions as to how long I should speak before he interpreted.

“Ah,” exclaimed he, “I must beg of you to allow me to give a literal interpretation of your speech, and, therefore, that I shall follow you after every two or three sentences.”

“I don’t like this plan,” said I.

“Well, you see, there are many critics. Although I am a member of parliament, I am also a professor of languages. I teach in the public schools, and my reputation would suffer if I were not to interpret you correctly.”

I therefore fell in with the arrangement. At the meeting, after about forty minutes easy going, as he rose to follow me he looked at me in a very troubled fashion. The veins on his forehead were swollen, and he said pathetically:

“Shall we not soon conclude? I am very tired.”

I had not got half through my speech, so I simply ignored him and went full-steam ahead for about half an hour. I expect he felt very humiliated for a time, but he evidently decided to make the best of it, for when I sat down, up he jumped and delivered a very eloquent speech, as it appeared to me. The audience obviously took the same view judging by the hearty cheers at the finish.

The most amusing experience I had with an interpreter on this run was at Christiania. The friends responsible for the meeting introduced me to their chosen interpreter. He seemed to be quite at ease, and judging by his conversation fluent enough in English. The meeting commenced — a packed hall — and after about four or five minutes, up jumped a scholarly looking man who made a few remarks which were heartily endorsed by the audience. From that time, the scholarly looking man did the interpreting, the original man no longer appearing. I did not know what was wrong until at the close of the meeting I asked: “Why the change?”

“Ah,” came the answer, “the first man could talk English all right, but he had forgotten Norwegian!“

After these events, renewed attention to France was requisite. The council of the federation had been informed that one of the chief stumbling blocks to further advance in the French ports was the bad state of organisation in Bordeaux. Notwithstanding my expulsion from France a few months before, it was thought advisable I should visit some of the French ports, giving Paris a wide berth. Fortunately, I had a good friend at work in connection with the docks at Le Havre. He could speak English well, and was in full sympathy with our attempt at international organisation.

I arranged for him to meet me and help me in my mission. I was wearing a blue serge suit, and all I needed to give me the stamp of a seafaring man was an official-looking cap. This I obtained, and I went in and out and round about the docks taking note of the methods of work and gathering necessary items of information. After a few days at Le Havre I went to Nantes, thence to St Nazaire, and on to Bordeaux. I found the official of the Bourse du Travail. Having been forewarned of my coming, he kindly placed himself at my disposal. Since the executive of the bureau was to meet that evening, he suggested that I should put my case before the members. He, himself, would interpret.

I learned from the executive that numerous attempts had been made to organise the dockers. Sufficient progress had been achieved to bring pressure to bear on the employers, and more than once substantial improvements in wages had been secured. Invariably, however, this had been followed by an influx of Spanish workers, chiefly from Bilbao, who swamped the port with men willing to work for less than the union rate. This had always frustrated their efforts. Before they could hope to be permanently successful, it would be necessary to stop the influx of cheap labour, and they urged me to meet the whole of the bureau delegates the following evening, and have the matter more exhaustively dealt with. I agreed.

Only one man knew me. To the rest I was J. Miller, as a matter of tactics; but they all knew the name of Tom Mann and asked when he was likely to be coming over. This of course was suitably replied to.

Next day a municipal councilor requested me to accompany him to the Hotel de Ville on a visit to the Mayor, who could speak a little English and who would be delighted to meet me. I did so, and had quite a nice conversation with His Worship, who was gracious enough to arrange for my being escorted over the Musee. I duly signed the visitors’ book as J. Miller, mecanicien de Londres. The meeting with the delegates was quite a success, and very interesting. It would have been more so if I could have made known who I was, but the expulsion order of an earlier date contained a clause “ not to visit French territory without police permission, under a penalty of six months imprisonment without trial.

I decided to proceed to Bilbao, and see if organised action could be encouraged there in the interests of the Spanish workers, no less than that of Bordeaux and of the International Federation.

On quitting Bordeaux I left a card for each member of the executive explaining why I had been unable to appear in my own name. I also wrote to the Mayor apologising for my little deception and thanking him for his courtesy. Ere this could have reached him by post, I was at the frontier town of Irun, and beyond French jurisdiction.

This kind of running around was necessary in the early days to lay the basis of the International Federation; nor will it be wondered at by those who realise how exceedingly slow we have been to take action between one country and another, or north with south, or east with west. One visit is worth many letters, and a meeting, with tactful attention to a few individuals, oftentimes lays the basis for a good understanding.

I did not know more than half a dozen words of Spanish on reaching Bilbao, and had no idea where to address myself. On arrival I saw posters announcing a protest meeting on the following Sunday morning at the Circus, and one of the advertised speakers was Pablo Iglesias, whom I had met at the International Congress. I attended the meeting and easily got in touch with comrades who were able to inform me as to the general situation. I was invited to attend, with Pablo Iglesias and others, a strike meeting of miners, some dozen miles out by train, that same afternoon. I went, and spoke at the meeting. I forget who interpreted, perhaps no one, but that would not be a very serious matter.

I learned that three socialist members of the Bilbao Municipal Council, on the previous Sunday at a miners’ demonstration, had vehemently condemned the authorities for having ordered the military to fire on the crowd, when several had been killed. These three councilors had been arrested and imprisoned. I was invited next day to accompany one of the prominent local labour men to visit the councilors in the prison, and I agreed to do so. The friend who had me in charge knew little more of English than I knew Spanish, so attempts at conversation were but moderately successful. However, we reached the prison, and several persons were waiting at the entrance, where a comfortable-looking man was leaning back smoking cigarettes, in an armchair in the centre of the porch, giving an occasional nod to new arrivals as he had done to my friend and myself. By and by he lit another cigarette and handed his case to my companion and myself.

We each took one. I thought him most genial, but could not understand the chair, and the ease of the burly gentleman. Later, I learned that he was the governor of the prison, and we were only kept waiting because those we wished to see already had a group of friends attending them. My companion explained something to the governor, and he beckoned an official who took us over the more interesting portions of the prison, winding up by taking us to the large room (not a cell) occupied by the three socialist councilors. They were not in prison uniform, but wore their own clothes. Their only punishment was confinement to prison quarters during the period of the strike.

I have been in close contact with prison officials, including governors, on my own account since then; but the only prison governor who ever offered me a smoke was the burly gentleman of Bilbao.