Tom Mann’s Memoirs, 1923

Book one: Europe

V. The dock strike of 1889

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

The London Dock Strike of 1889 involved a much wider issue than that of a large number of port workers fighting for better conditions. There had long been no more than a dogged acquiescence in the conditions insisted upon by the employers, more particularly on the part of those classed as unskilled labourers. Skilled and unskilled alike were dominated over by their employers; and at the same time the unskilled, not being yet organised, were in many instances subject to further dictation and domination by the organised skilled men. The industrial system was (as it still is, with some modification), creating an army of surplus workers, who, never having been decently paid for their work, had never been decently fed; every occupation had its proportion of this surplus. Irregularity of work, coupled with liability to arduous and dangerous toil when employed, characterised the dock workers in an exceptional degree; and although dock labour was classed as unskilled, in grim reality it often required a considerable amount of skill; moreover, accidents were frequent. Nevertheless, in the struggle against death by starvation, a larger percentage of worn-out men (cast-offs from other occupations) made their way to compete for casual labour at the docks and wharves of London, than to any other place or to any similar occupation.

This does not mean that all the dock workers were weaklings. Far from it. Some of the finest built men in the country would always be found amongst the dockers; but the above generalisation was true. Again, whilst dockers were in a very large number of cases badly paid per hour, and could only get a few hours’ work per week, in the work of a large port there is always a number who get regular work, and some, of course, who get relatively good wages.

Many circumstances seem to have conspired to make the upheaval of 1889 the assertion of the rights of a large class in the community — the rights of those who had never before been recognised as possessing the rights and the title to respect of civilised humans. It was nothing less than a challenge to all hostile forces, and an assertion of a claim for proper treatment. The challenge was successful; the claim was enforced.

I was at the office of the Labour Electorin Paternoster Row, on August 14 in that year, when, about midday, I received a wire from Ben Tillett asking me to make my way to the South West India Dock. I went at once. There was no difficulty in finding the men, for Ben was with them, and they were about to hold a meeting.

I was soon put in possession of the main facts. The men had been discharging a sailing ship named The Lady Armstrong. They were working for fivepence an hour “plus”, this meaning that, in a vague fashion, very ill-defined, there was a recognised time for discharging certain goods, and if the men did the work in less time they received a surplus of a halfpenny or penny per hour. The men argued they had kept correct tally, but the dock superintendent refused to admit the claim. The dockers were told that their demand for more pay would have to be dealt with by the chief authority, the London and India Docks Joint Committee. The men refused to return to work.

Serious discussion must have taken place prior to the Lady Armstrong difficulty, because almost immediately it was proposed that now they were out, they should insist in the future upon an established minimum of sixpence per hour for ordinary time, and eightpence per hour for overtime. When I arrived, they had already decided to claim at least as much as this, and to call upon their fellow dockers to help them. No need here to go into detail beyond that of giving a correct idea of the definiteness of aim, and the effect of the achievement. For myself, I kept at that strike until it was over; and for long after I remained in touch with the dockers, and with the movement of which they were a part.

Burns, as all know, was, like Tillett, in the thick of the struggle, being active in every phase of it, except when absolutely compelled to take rest. The strike committee at the start made its headquarters at Wroots Coffee House, Poplar, and the first day that relief tickets were given out I had a very difficult duty. There was a crowd of several thousand men to deal with, and each had to be given one ticket, and only one. As yet there had been no time to organise the distribution systematically. The men were in urgent need; they had been told a few hours before that tickets would be issued that day. Now they had assembled, and the committee had just received the tickets from the printer.

Wroots Coffee House door opened out on to a main thoroughfare. If only we could admit the men at a quiet walking pace they could go out at a side door; but naturally they were eager; they were fearful there might not be enough tickets to go round; they would hardly listen to instructions that order must be preserved. I, therefore, stood on the doorstep and briefly addressed the crowd, telling them that every one would get a ticket, but that we must keep control of the position, and I asked them to pass me quietly. To their great credit, they entirely agreed. Almost immediately a thousand men were right close to me, but endeavouring to be perfectly orderly. I put my back against one of the doorposts, and stretched out my leg with my foot on the opposite post, jamming myself in. I talked pleasantly to the men, and passed each man in under my leg, by this means steadying the rush. The fact that they did not make it impossible for me to remain at the task was exceedingly creditable, for, to prevent a stampede, many had to keep their mates back, and it was all done in good humour. At the close I was so stiff and bruised, I could scarcely walk for a while, I pulled my shirt off and wrung it out. It was soaked with perspiration, and my back had a good deal of skin off; but the job was completed satisfactorily.

The stevedores, the men who load the long- distance boats, and therefore stow the cargo, had organised in 1872, and had established a rate of eightpence an hour ordinary time and one shilling an hour overtime, thus giving evidence of the disciplinary effects of organisation. Their meeting place was at the Wades Arms, Jeremiah Street, Poplar; and as the accommodation was more suitable there than at Wroots, the strike committee moved to the stevedores’ headquarters.

Tom McCarthy (dead now this twenty-two years) was a prominent and active member. Another stevedore, James Twomey, was chairman of the strike committee — for these and all other waterside workers were out in sympathy, if not directly affected.

The strike committee sat every day and evening, usually till midnight. The questions to be dealt with were multitudinous; occasionally there would be warmth of temper shown, but generally speaking the proceedings were conducted in a most orderly fashion. I was told off to give special attention to picketing, and to the organisation of forces on the south side of the river. This left others available for public speaking, attempts at negotiations, etc. I usually turned up at committee about 11pm, unless special questions demanded consideration.

What stress and strain and responsibility! What opportunities for demonstrating capacity, a knowledge of what was necessary, readiness to do it. And, speaking generally wonderfully the work was done. Apart from public speaking, picketing, and negotiating, a thousand things every day required attention, and as a rule they were well attended to. Besides the thirty thousand dock and wharf workers, there were sailors and firemen, carmen, lightermen and drydock workers, making another thirty thousand. These, with their dependents, all had to be provided for.

Four hundred and forty thousand food tickets were distributed during the five weeks the dispute lasted, and many thousands of meals were organised and provided by friendly agencies. Public sympathy was entirely with the men, and practically the whole press was kindly disposed. Large sums were collected, but in spite of this help the time came when finances were at a very low ebb and the prospects of a settlement seemed remote. Next day, however, came a cable from Australia sending two thousand pounds, with promise of more; a few day’s later, the Australians cabled fifteen hundred pounds more. All told, they sent no less than thirty thousand pounds. What a godsend! How it delighted the men; how it encouraged the leaders; and how it must have told the other way on the dock directors!

The dockers’ fight in London fired the imagination of all classes in Australia; and employers, as readily and as heartily as workers, contributed to the London Dockers’ Fund. I have had opportunities of thanking the people of Australia by addressing them in person at public meetings in nearly every city and township. What of it that many Australians who subscribed to the London Dockers’ Fund in 1889, fought determinedly against the transport workers in Australasia in 1890? These are the vagaries of human nature. As Yorkshire people say: “There’s nowt so queer as folk.”

John Burns and Ben Tillett were two very different men in temperament and style, but each of them possessed exactly the right qualities to fire audiences and keep up the struggle to a successful finish. John Burns — with his assertiveness, his businesslike readiness to deal with emergencies, his power and disposition to keep at arm’s length those who would have foisted themselves on the movement to its disadvantage, his cheery jocularity and homely remarks to the men on the march or on Tower Hill, his scathing criticism of hostile comments in the press or on the part of the dock directors — vitally contributed to the continuous encouragement of the mass of the strikers.

Ben Tillett, who had a close relationship to the men as general secretary of the Tea Operatives and General Labourers Union, would pour forth invective upon all opponents, would reach the heart’s core of the dockers by his description of the way in which they had to beg for work and the paltry pittance they received, and by his homely illustrations of their life as it was and as it ought to be. He was short in stature, but tough; pallid but dauntless; affected with a stammer at this time, but the real orator of the group. Ben was a force to be reckoned with all through the fight.

H.H. Champion, cooler than a cucumber, would make statements of a revolutionary character, would deal with the weak points in the men’s position, and would encourage them to rectify the same. Occasionally R.B. Cunninghame Graham would appear, as neat as a West End dude, with an eye keener than a hawk’s, and a voice and manner that riveted attention as he drove home his satirical points, but always leaving a nice impression.

Tom McCarthy was a keen-witted, eloquent, versatile Irishman, full of personal knowledge of the actual life and work of a waterside man. Harry Orbell was a simple-spoken, frank, honest fellow, familiar with all the difficulties of the unskilled labourer, but was himself a highly skilled man in the furnishing business. He had been squeezed out of this employment by the exigencies of trade depression. On the south side, Harry Quelch took a keen interest in the organisation of the men, and built up the Labour Protection League.

When at length the dock directors agreed to the demands, with certain reservations as to the date when they should become operative, the position became critical. At the Mansion House many conferences had been held. The Lord Mayor, the dock directors, the men’s representatives, and with general acquiescence a few prominent persons not identified directly with the business side of life, including the Bishop of London and Cardinal Manning, participated.

I had never seen the cardinal before, and it was a matter of no small interest to me to find myself closely identified with such a man for a colleague. A large percentage of the men at the docks were (and are) Roman Catholics. Now that a stage had been reached when the men’s representatives were of opinion that the offers of the company merited serious consideration, the cardinal, on the suggestion of the strike committee chairman, agreed to go to Poplar and put the case to the men, who held him in the greatest respect and reverence.

The meeting was held in the Kirby Street Catholic Schools at Poplar. The cardinal was a very slender man; his face was most arresting, so thin, so refined, so kindly. In the whole of my life I have never seen another like unto it. He spoke to the dockers in such a quiet, firm and advising fatherly manner, that minute by minute as he was speaking one could feel the mental atmosphere changing. The result was an agreement that the conditions should be accepted, to become operative in November.

The chief gains were: a minimum of sixpence an hour instead of fivepence (only fourpence formerly at Tilbury); eightpence an hour for overtime; none to be paid off with less than two shillings, or four hours’ work. This seems a trifling gain now, but it was an important matter then, to have regular taking-on times instead of taking-on at any hour of the day, and to have gangs properly made up. The last point was not included in the original settlement, but it became a current practice at the docks and wharves, to the great advantage of the men. The change for the better was very real; and although subsequently difficulties arose, when many of the men became careless, and when petty bosses sought to score over the dockers, still, all who knew and know the facts will admit that the struggle of 1889 was a real landmark.

Ben Tillett, who had been general secretary all the time, writing of what happened in 1889 and its effects, when reviewing the position twenty-one years later, in A Brief History of the Dockers’ Unions wrote:

We had established a new spirit; the bully and the thief, for a time at least, were squelched; no more would the old man be driven and cursed to death by the younger man, threatened and egged on to murder by an overmastering bully. The whole tone and conduct of work, of management of the men, was altered, and for the best.

The goad of the sack was not so fearful; the filthiness and foulness of language was altered for an attempt at courtesy, which, if not refined, was at least a recognition of the manhood of our brothers.

From a condition of the foulest blackguardism in directing the work, the men found a greater respect shown them; they, too, grew in self-respect, and the men we saw after the strike were comparable to the most self-respecting of the other grades of labour.

The “calls“ worked out satisfactorily; organisation took the place of the haphazard; the bosses who lazed and loafed on their subordinates were perforce obliged to earn instead of thieving their money; the work was better done; the men’s lives were more regular, as their work was — the docker had, in fact, become a man!

The man became greater in the happiness of a better supplied larder and home; and the womenfolk, with the children, shared the sense of security and peace the victory at the docks had wrought.

I must give myself the satisfaction here of putting on record the great kindness and forbearance shown to the Strike Committee, and to the stream of deputations they had to deal with, by Mrs Hickey of the Wades Arm. The hostess, her son, and her daughters had, indeed, a heavy task. We practically took possession of the house, not for an hour or two, but for all day and every day during the five weeks the strike lasted. But Mrs Hickey treated these fellows — ourselves of the committee included — as though she had been mother to the lot. She literally kept a shillelagh handy, with which she frequently, in a half-serious way, would threaten any young fellow who was too noisy; but it was fine that these rough chaps respected her so thoroughly, and that she had the splendid tact to make it easy for them to keep good order all through the trying time.

I was generally one of the last members of the committee to get away. Often enough I left the premises nearer one o’clock than midnight — not to go home, for there was little chance of doing that, but to get to the house of Brother Jem Twomey, the chairman of the Strike Committee, with whom I used to stay.

I can honestly say, for my own part, that I cared nothing at all for the public meetings, whether on Tower Hill or elsewhere, or for what was thought of the fight by the public. I concentrated on the work of organisation, and was indifferent to outside opinion. I had been at it about three weeks, and was now dealing specially with the South Side of the Thames. One day I realised that my boots had become so worn out that I must get others, or go barefoot (we always had long marches, and I invariably marched with the crowd). I slipped away from the marching column as soon as I noticed a boot shop. Hastily buying a pair of boots, I put them on and hurried to catch up with the crowd. When we reached Sayes Court, Deptford, I spoke as usual upon the general situation. A few days later, we were marching again along the thoroughfare where I had bought the boots. My eye lighted on the shop window, and to my amazement I noticed my name on a card.

I approached the window, and to my still greater astonishment I saw that the card bearing my name was on the pair of old boots I had shed a few days before. The writing on the card ran: “The boots worn by Tom Mann during the long marches in the Dock Strike.” I was positively flabbergasted to think that importance of any kind could attach to such articles, or to me.

I had become so inextricably involved in the dispute, and felt so completely a part of everything that was taking place, that I had left work, home, and all else, and paid no regard to anything other than the fight I was in. I scarcely noticed the papers, and had it not been for the subscriptions from Australia I doubt if I should have known that the activities in which I was swallowed up had arrested attention outside this country. But, as events proved, the dock strike started a wave which spread over a great part of the world, and the working conditions of many millions were affected by it.

Offers of clerical help were numerous during the strike. One of these volunteers who rendered valuable service was Eleanor Marx Aveling, the daughter of Karl Marx, a most capable woman. Possessing a complete mastery of economics, she was able, alike in conversation and on a public platform, to hold her own with the best. Furthermore, she was ever ready, as in this case, to give close attention to detailed work, when by so doing she could help the movement. I am the proud possessor of a very fine photograph of her father, given me by Eleanor.

Those who desire a consecutive history of the dockers’ strike, will find the best account in The Story of the Dockers’ Strike, by H. Llewellyn Smith (now Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith) and Vaughan Nash, published by T. Fisher Unwin in 1889.

The revolutionary song, The Red Flag, was written at the end of 1889 by Jim Connell.

He was a socialist then, and remains a socialist yet. He is still very vigorous, and carries on a legal aid business in Chancery Lane. I have known Jim for five-and-thirty years, and he has ever been the proud revolutionary Irishman, proud of his nationality and proud of his socialism, but terribly disappointed with the tune to which all socialist societies, audiences, and individuals, sing The Red Flag.

Jim has explained how he wrote the song, as follows:

I was inspired to write The Red Flag by the Paris Commune, the heroism of the Russian nihilists, the firmness and self-sacrifice of the Irish Land Leaguers, the devotion unto death of the Chicago Anarchists, and other similar events. I felt my mind exalted by all these. On the night I wrote the song I was returning home from hearing a lecture by Herbert Burrows.

He spoke in a semi-devout manner, as if he wished to convey that socialism was his religion. This inspired me to write something in the train. The only tune that ever has or ever will suit The Red Flag is the one I hummed as I wrote it. I mean The White Cockade (Irish version). This was given as the tune when the song first appeared, in the Christmas number of Justice, 1889. A.S. Headingly took on himself to change the tune. May God forgive him, for I never shall! He linked the words to Maryland, the correct name of which is Tannenbaum, an old German Roman Catholic hymn. I never intended that The Red Flag should be sung to church music to remind people of their sins!

The song has been subjected to considerable criticism, words and music both, but no other song is half so popular in the socialist movement in this country. During recent years the International “ is increasingly used, and will, perhaps, ultimately take the first place ; but the “ Red Flag “ has had a magnificent popularity, and at the present time, of those socialist bodies that close their meetings with singing, in the majority of cases it is the first and last stanzas of The Red Flag that are used:

The people’s flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their heart’s blood dyed its every fold.

With heads uncovered swear we all
To bear it onward till we fall,
Come dungeon dark or gallows grim,
This song shall be our parting hymn.

Then raise the scarlet standard high!
Within its shade we’ll live and die.
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer.
We’ll keep the Red Flag flying here.