Tom Mann’s Memoirs, 1923

Book one: Europe

VI. After the dockers’ strike

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


The stimulus that the dock strike gave to trade unionism was very great and far-reaching; it led to a real revival. In order to enable those readers who are giving attention to consecutive developments, and to the relationship which the activities of this particular period bear to other periods of activity, I here quote some paragraphs from Sidney and Beatrice Webbs’ History of Trade Unionism, written in 1894, five years after the strike. There is a natural risk that one who closely participated in the work of this period, as I did, might attach an unjustifiable importance thereto. But the Webbs write:

The immediate result of the dockers’ success was the formation of a large number of trade unions among the unskilled labourers. Branches of the Dock, Wharf and Riverside Labourers’ Union were established at all the principal ports. A rival Society of Dockers, established at Liverpool, enrolled thousands of members at Glasgow and Belfast. The unskilled labourers in Newcastle joined the Tyneside and National Labour Union, which soon extended to all the neighbouring towns. The Gas Workers’ Union enrolled tens of thousands of labourers of all kinds in the provincial cities. The General Railway Workers’ Union, originally established in 1889 as a rival to the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, took in great numbers of general labourers. The National Amalgamated Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union, established in 1887, expanded during 1889 to a membership of 65,000. Within a year after the dockers’ victory, probably over 200,000 workers had been added to the Trade Union ranks, recruited from sections of the labour world formerly abandoned as incapable of organisation …

A wave of trade unionism, comparable in extent with those of 1833 and 1873-4, was now spreading into every corner of British industry. Already in 1888 the revival of trade had led to a marked increase in trade-union membership. This normal growth now received a great impulse from the sensational events of the dock strike. Even the oldest and most aristocratic unions were affected by the revivalist fervour of the new leaders. The eleven principal societies in the shipbuilding and metal trades, which had been, since 1885, on the decline, increased from 115,000 at the end of 1888 to 130,000 in 1889, 145,000 in 1890 and 155,000 in 1891. The ten largest unions in the building trades, which between 1885 and 1888 had likewise declined in numbers, rose from 57,000 in 1888 to 63,000 in 1889, 80,000 in 1890 and 94,000 in 1891. In certain individual societies the increase in membership during these years was unparalleled in their history. The Operative Society of Bricklayers grew from a fairly stationary 7000 in 1888 to over 17,000 in 1891. The Boot and Shoe Operatives went from 11,000 in 1888 to 30,000 in 1891 …

The victory of the London dockers and the impetus it gave to trade unionism throughout the country at last opened the eyes of the trade-union world to the significance of the new movement …

In many instances the older members now supported the new faith. In other cases they found themselves submerged by the large accessions to their membership, which resulted from the general expansion.

It is, however, necessary to say that there was a great deal of criticism levelled at those who were termed the New Unionists. Mr Broadhurst, MP, Mr George Howell, MP, Mr Robert Knight, Mr C.J. Drummond, and Mr George Shipton expressed themselves in unfriendly terms, and at times severely censured those of us who were especially active. Mr Shipton in particular wrote an article which appeared in the June issue, 1890, of Murray’s Magazine on “Trades Unionism: The Old and the New”. A more detailed criticism was contained in a volume penned by George Howell, and published in 1891, Trade Unionism New and Old.

The “New Unionists” were alleged to be too ready to achieve their ends by strikes. They were blamed for insisting upon all in a department or works being members of a union, aiming as they did at 100 per cent organised. It was accounted a fault that they made use of demonstrations, of bands and banners, thereby making needless public display.

At this period I was president of the Dockers Union, having accepted that position after the strike to help in solidifying and extending the organisation. Ben Tillett was secretary, and he and I decided that the best way in which to reply to Mr Shipton was to issue a penny pamphlet. We did so, under the title of The New Trades Unionism: a Reply to Mr George Shipton. The following extracts therefrom will serve to show that the differences were in spirit and outlook, rather than in form and method.

Many of those who are identified with the new trades unionism have been connected with their own trade societies for many years past, and it was a continual source of bitter grief to them that so much poverty should exist amongst workers of all sections, but especially among the unskilled and unorganised, and that the old societies should be so utterly callous to this poverty as not to make any special exertion to alter matters for the better …

The methods adopted by us of determining a change in our present industrial system are on a strictly trade-union: basis. All our public utterances, all our talks to our members, have been directed towards cultivating a sturdy spirit of independence, and instilling a deep sense of responsibility. In fact, we have been at pains to discredit appeals to the legislature, contending that the political machine will fall into our hands as a matter of course so soon as the educational work has been done in our labour organisations, we are convinced that not until parliament is an integral part of the workers, representing and responsible to industrial toilers, shall we be able to effect any reform by its means …

The statement that the new trade unionists look to governments and legislation is bunkum; the keynote is to organise first, and take action in the most effective way so soon as organisation warrants action, instead of specially looking to government. The lesson is being thoroughly well taught and learned that we must look to ourselves alone, though this, of course, does not preclude us from exercising our rights of citizenship.

It is quite true that most of the newly formed unions pay contributions for trade purposes only, leaving sick and funeral benefits to be dealt with by sick and insurance societies. The work of the trade unionist is primarily to obtain such a readjustment of conditions between employers and employed as shall secure to the latter a better share of the wealth they produce in the form of reduced working hours and higher wages, and our experience has taught us that many of the older unions are very reluctant to engage in a labour struggle, no matter how great the necessity, because they are hemmed in by sick and funeral claims, so that to a large extent they have lost their true characteristic of being fighting organisations, and the sooner they revert to their original program the better for the well-being of the working masses. We, therefore, advocate strongly the necessity for labour organisations dealing with trade matters only.

At every opportunity that presented itself we have paid our willing tribute to our old leaders, the real fighters. We attribute the apathy of many of the wealthy unions to the lack of new vitality, many of them up till within recent years not being in advance of the stage where they have been left by the men who suffered imprisonment and starvation for their convictions.

Our ideal is a co-operative commonwealths. This we believe will be reached by honest effort in various directions, chief among which will be the efforts of the trade unionists and while striving for the ideal, we are glad to know that we need not wait for years before further advantages can be obtained, but that by discreet conduct on our part, we can be continually gaining some advantage for one or other section of the workers.

The Trade Union Congress was held at Liverpool in 1890, and the old and new schools were necessarily striving for ascendency. The old school were more in agreement with the new than they had ever been before, most of them being instructed by their members how to vote on matters considered vital. The big fight was on the eight-hours question. The new school favoured our eight-hours bill, and this was carried. John Burns and I were two of the five delegates sent to the congress by the Amalgamated Engineers.

About this time I received a letter from a firm of lawyers, saying that a client of theirs who preferred to remain anonymous authorised them to offer me two pounds (or two guineas) a week on condition that I should become the candidate for a parliamentary constituency. This sum would be paid me until the election should take place. I replied, thanking the unknown would-be patron, but saying I was of the opinion that I could render better service by remaining identified with the industrial movement. I heard no more of the matter.

The wave that started round the world in 1889 did not abate throughout 1890. The maritime strike of Australasia had its rise in Sydney in 1890 and spread until it covered Australia and New Zealand. Originating with the ships’ officers, it was a prolonged and fierce struggle, whose result was not satisfactory to the men. This failure on the industrial field was one of the chief reasons why the Australian movement subsequently took on so markedly political a complexion.

During the same year, hundreds of disputes took place in Great Britain, some of them affecting very large numbers of workers. Among these disputes was the Scottish railway strike, which was fought very tenaciously. The government now announced its intention to appoint a royal commission on labour. I received intimation that I was likely to be nominated as one of the members. The matter having been discussed, it was held desirable that the interests of the workers should be watched and defended, and time to attend the sittings was granted me. The appointment duly came, the Commission Warrant being dated April 21, 1891.

The total membership of the commission was twenty-seven; the representatives of the Labour interest numbered seven. The full list was as follows:

The Marquis of Hartington (subsequently Duke of Devonshire); Lord Derby; Sir Michael Hicks-Beach; A.J. Mundella; H.H. Fowler; Leonard H. Courtney (subsequently Lord Courtney); Sir John E. Gorst; Sir Frederick Pollock; Sir Edward J. Harland; Sir W.T. Lewis; Professor Marshall; William Abraham (Mabon); Michael Austin; Gerald W. Balfour; J.C. Bolton; Thomas Burt; Jesse Collings; David Dale (subsequently Sir David Dale); Alfred Hewlett (subsequently Sir Alfred Hewlett); T.H. Ismay; George Livesey; Tom Mann; James Maudsley; Samuel Plimsoll; Henry Tait; Edward Trow; William Tunstall.

The reference was:

A royal commission to inquire into the questions affecting the relations between employer and employed; the combinations of employers and employed, and the conditions of labour which have been raised during the recent trade disputes in the United Kingdom; and to report whether legislation can with advantage be directed to the remedy of any evils that may be disclosed, and, if so, in what manner.

I gave a large part of three years to the work of the commission, and I found it most interesting. There were days when a humdrum, stolid type of witness gave evidence that had little or no value to anyone; and occasionally it seemed farcical to spend time listening to such drivel. Often enough, however, the witnesses were genuine experts, who had well prepared their case, who exhibited ability, and who gave much useful information.

I was especially interested in studying the personal characteristics of the commissioners, in noticing their behaviour when witnesses were giving evidence that conflicted with the views they themselves held. Particularly significant was their manner when examining witnesses.

To expedite business, the commission split up into three sub-committees to deal with special groups of trades; but the members of each sub- committee were free to attend and to participate in the work of the other sub-committees. When the evidence of any witness was accounted of national importance, the commission sat as a whole. At such meetings, the Duke of Devonshire presided, and conducted the examination-in-chief of each witness, individual commissioners having the right to ask supplementary questions.

The Duke made an excellent chairman. He never tried to browbeat a witness, or to take advantage of any clumsiness of expression. Sometimes, of course, a commissioner or a witness would show irascibility. On such occasions the Duke would interpose with a question that invariably damped the ardour of one or other of the disputants; but his action was so tactful that no awkwardness was left behind.

The other three chairmen, one for each sub-committee, were Lord Derby, Sir David Dale, and Mr Mundella. Sir David Dale was particularly suave and deferential to witnesses. Mundella was assertive and disposed to be argumentative. When the evidence elicited by his questions failed to square with his own views, it was his custom to ask further questions, hoping to get his opinion endorsed if possible. Such a practice might be tolerated in individual commissioners, but was unsuitable in a chairman.

Two capitalist members of the commission especially interested me when conducting an examination. One was the prominent shipowner Sir T.H. Ismay, then chairman of the White Star Line. The other was Sir Edward Harland, of Harland & Wolffs, Belfast. Sir Thomas Ismay invariably questioned witnesses in a kindly tone, even when dealing with matters in which he was keenly concerned as a business man. Sir Edward Harland, on the contrary, always put his questions in a markedly hostile fashion, his tone of voice and facial expression combining to create the impression that his main object was to score points, and to secure admissions damaging to any witness who appeared on behalf of the workers.

Professor Marshall, of Cambridge, was a very diligent commissioner, and gave close attention to all the evidence. It was obvious that his questions were carefully elaborated beforehand. The professor had an academic and somewhat pedantic style. I remember that when Sidney Webb was being examined by Marshall, the witness showed unmistakable signs of annoyance, and frequently replied in curt and satirical terms.

When the problem of the state regulation of labour came up for consideration, I was myself a witness. In addition, I submitted a statement on the eight-hour work day by trade and local option. In this connection I was under examination for three whole days, fifteen hundred questions being addressed to me, and the replies to some of these were pretty lengthy. I could not judge how far individual members of the commission were endeavouring to make use of the evidence elicited in order to aid them in their parliamentary work, but Gerald Balfour always impressed me as being really keen to understand the trend of opinion with a view to arriving at conclusions that might be helpful legislatively. The Labour members were Thomas Burt of the Northumberland miners, William Abraham of the South Wales miners; Michael Austin of Ireland, typographical; Henry Tait of Scotland, Railwaymens Union; Edward Trow of Darlington, Iron Workers Association; James Maudsley of Lancashire, cotton spinners; and Tom Mann.

When the recommendations came to be made in the final report, four of us were unable to agree, and so a minority report was also presented. It is frequently asserted that the main object of a government in appointing a commission or select committee, is to shelve a troublesome question. I regard the criticism as substantially sound. Still, I am sure that much genuine effort was put forth to make proposals of a remedial character in the Labour Commission reports; but I am unable to point to any legislative measure as a direct result of recommendations made by the Labour Commission.

Among the various proposals I submitted was one to dockise the river Thames, and to unify the authority that should control the Port of London.

The docks at that time were not under one authority; there were four competing dock companies, and over one hundred-and-fifty wharves and granaries, all in the Port of London. The dock companies were: the London and St Katherines Company; the East and West India Company; the Surrey and Commercial Docks Company; and the Millwall Docks Company. For business purposes, however, the London and St Katherines and the East and West India Companies were controlled by a joint committee known as the London and India Docks Joint Committee. This committee managed the St Katherines Docks, the London Docks, the West India Docks, the East India Docks, the Victoria Dock, the Albert Dock, and the Tilbury Docks. The Millwall Docks Company controlled the Millwall Docks at the Isle of Dogs, Poplar. The Surrey Commercial Company controlled the Surrey Commercial group at Rotherhithe on the south side; but in addition to these was a small dock at Limehouse controlled by the Regents Canal and Dock Company, and there was another at Blackwall, known as the Poplar Dock, controlled by the North London Railway Company, and yet another small one, but with considerable warehouses, controlled by the Midland Railway Company. In addition, there were between Blackfriars Bridge and Greenwich Ferry, 141 wharves and 44 granaries; 110 of the wharves were classed as shipping wharves. At 34 of these, ships could be run along the side of the wharf; 21 of them were on the north side of the river, and 13 on the south. The dock companies sent experts to give evidence before the commission, their aim being to saddle upon the dockers and other waterside workers the blame for the comparative costliness of receiving, discharging and loading a ship in the Port of London. Knowing the location of the various groups of docks and wharves, and the peculiar formation of the river, I made it my task to demonstrate to the commission: first, that the numerous vested interests conflicting with each other in the port prevented anything approaching real efficiency; and, secondly that the docks were far apart from each other, and so many miles in some instances from the warehouses, that several handlings of the freight were necessary, resulting in unwarrantable expenditure.

I, therefore, submitted a plan for dockising the three-and-a-half-mile loop from Limehouse to Blackwall, where the neck of the Isle of Dogs narrows to one and one-eighth of a mile. I submitted that a cut should be made across this neck. Along the existing course of the river (the loop as I have termed it), the foreshore should be built up; and the same thing should be done on the foreshore of the cutting. This would give three and a half miles on each side of the bend, and a mile and an eighth on each side of the proposed cutting, or a total of nearly nine and a half miles for scientifically arranged warehouses, to which any vessel could get right up. There should be a big basin built at North Woolwich, opposite Blackwall, so that vessels could enter the basin as they came up the river and have no occasion to trouble about suitable tides to enter the docks. I elaborated lengthily upon this, showing in detail the character of the tonnage that entered the port every month, and the nature of the work that had to be done in connection with it. I also contended that dock labour, at present disastrously casual, might be so systematised that the dockers would be enabled to work just as regularly as railway employees. Vested interests have, however, been too strong for such plans to be adopted. Time and money are still wasted, and the public is badly served owing to the hotch-potch character of the dock accommodation. Nevertheless, some years later, when I was in Australia, I was interested to learn that steps were being taken to unify a good deal of the responsibility for controlling the port. I had advocated that the county council should be the fully recognised authority for this purpose, but this I suppose was too drastic, so the Port of London Authority was brought into existence, and its new home, near the Tower Bridge, has just been completed.

The discussion as to the relative merits of the new and the old unionism continued. As always happens, attempts to change established conditions brought condemnation from those who did not desire any change, while approving those who, though undoubtedly identified with working-class organisations, did not attempt to use these organisations for changing the industrial and social conditions.

At Toynbee Hall and other settlements in the metropolitan area, frequent discussions took place on one or other phase of trade unionism. Quite a number of the young men residing there, or in one way or another identified with Toynbee Hall, had rendered considerable help during the dock strike. A few ex-Oxford men who had so helped, remained associated with the dockers when they formed themselves into branches of the union; and in several instances the Toynbee men themselves became branch members, accepted positions as officers, and did much useful detail work. So it came about that the Oxford Committee of the Universities Settlement Association (Toynbee Hall) organised a conference which was held in the Town Hall, Oxford, on November 29, 1890. The syllabus sets forth the subjects, and mentions the speakers who were considered representative in their respective circles:

First Session, 2.30pm. Mr A.H.D. Acland, MP, in the chair
Principles and methods of newer and older forms of trade unionism. The relation of both to the employer. The possibility of conciliation. Mr Tom Mann (president of the Dockers’ Union). Mr J.H. Tod (of the Dock House Joint Committee). Mr H. Slatter (secretary to the Typographical Association). The chairman.

Second Session, 8pm. Right Honourable Leonard H. Courtney, MP, in the chair. The adequacy of unionism, in whatever form, as a solution of economic difficulties; proposed supplements or alternatives in co-operation and legislation. Economic aspect of the question. Mr Benjamin Jones (of the London Co-operative Wholesale). Mr Graham Wallas (of the Fabian Society). Mr William Hey (secretary of the Ironfounders Union). Mr George Hawkins (of the Oxford Trades Council and Co-operative Wholesale Board).

I will not give a summary of the discussion. It was considered a useful one, and was published by the Oxford Committee. When I look at the speech I made, now more than thirty-five years ago, I find that many of the sentences correspond almost word for word with what I have used recently from the platform. The following paragraph is a specimen:

We have abundance of raw material from Mother Earth, and the capacity of our workers is increasing each year, so that from the raw material we can with a less expenditure of energy create a greater number of commodities for the energy expended. That being so, we argue that there is no divinely ordained reason, no natural reason, why any man, woman or child need be short of food or clothing, or the necessities of human existence; and therefore we contend that, as soon as the present chaos gives place to industrial order, there will be a chance for all to live proper lives: and that is the work of us trade unionists at the present time — so to organise ourselves, and to get the workers generally so effectively organised, that we can insist on the necessary changes taking place.

It is interesting to see the dock directors’ estimate of old and new unionism. Said Mr Tod:

“The old unions protect and assert the demands of particular trades, and even of special branches in those trades, and on the whole they do not trouble themselves much with other branches of the same trade. I should say generally — and again I speak as an outsider — that the fault of unionism, either old or new, is that energy and ability are rather levelled down and not up. There is too much uniformity. But when we come to the new unionism it may be protective, but it is eminently aggressive. It deals chiefly with unskilled labour, the supply of which is practically inexhaustible. That is one difficulty. Another thing they do now is to federate branches of the same trade: even though some branches thus federated may have no grievance of their own to cause a strike, they all strike together, or rather they go farther than that, they bring outside trades into the matter. Of course, that is all to bring on greater pressure.

Dealing with the limitations of unions, Mr Graham Wallas said:

We believe it is impossible for trades unions or the co-operative system by themselves to absorb what we call the differential advantages — those advantages which are in the nature of rent. We believe it is by a system of progressive taxation that we shall have to extinguish the landlord’s right, and the right of the mineowner, in the natural advantages of the soil, and the acquired advantages of town sites. We believe, in order to do so, it may be necessary to pass various legislative measures, taxing out the landlord and mineowner, and throwing the compensation for any landlord or mineowner whom we entirely dispossess, not upon the general body of workers in the community, but upon the holders of what we call idle incomes.

My duties as president of the Dockers Union were numerous and interesting. I had responsibilities to discharge in dealing with the pressing requirements of the men. At all times where large numbers of men are under conditions that vary in manner like unto the work at the docks and wharves, it is impossible, even with well-established methods, to avoid stoppages of work through unadjusted grievances. I worked comfortably with my colleagues, and harmoniously with the men: but one set of men were rather trying, perhaps exceptionally so. Their work was very laborious: to discharge grain by hand. There were seven men in each gang, and their duties were — the grain being in bulk — to fill the sacks, which would be hauled up out of the hold, then weighed and put on to the quayside, or “overside” into a barge. This was piecework, and, compared with other work at the docks, it was well paid.

I must here explain that it was our rule as officers of the Dockers Union to organise large meetings, usually on Sunday mornings, for educational purposes; ie, to get beyond the immediate concerns of the hour, and to deal with the labour movement nationally and internationally. As was my custom, at one of these meetings I had referred to the estimated wealth production of the nation, and to the distribution of this wealth, quoting statistical authorities. I had stated that “the workers did not receive more than one-half of the total wealth produced by labour”. The little story I have now to tell will show that the corn porters of the Victoria Dock district were not only at the meeting, but took note of what was said.

These men were paid a fixed sum per hundred quarters of grain discharged. But frequently the grain, during transit, would “sweat”, and the work then would be exceptionally hot and fatiguing: so an extra claim called “hot money” would be put in by the men, and often granted by the company. Sometimes the grain would be very dusty also, nearly choking the men at work, and necessitating much drinking: so claims were put in for “dirty money”, and sometimes granted. Further, when a ship was not specially adapted for carrying grain, some of the bunkers were exceptionally awkward to work, which necessitated one of the gang spending time in trimming or shovelling the grain forward, thus hindering the work of the gang and reducing wages: so claims were also put in for “awkward money”, and sometimes were recognised. In time it reached the stage when the Docks Committee said it would be necessary to have a conference with respect to the methods of remuneration and these repeated claims for extras. The conference was held. I was present. As a result, the company agreed to pay a higher overall rate per hundred quarters, and to disallow the claims for extras. Said the men:


We are prepared to accept this as a general principle; but, as all who know how the grain comes over will admit, there are times when the grain is so exceptionally hot or so very dirty, and sometimes both, that recognition for something extra must be made in such cases.

To this the company agreed, provided that there was some qualified person to judge as to the merit of such an extra claim. This, too, was arranged, and for a time matters went smoothly, claims being very rare, and only when conditions were exceptional. Then one morning at the dockers’ office I received a message from the Dock House to the effect that work on a certain grain vessel had been stopped, for the men had put in a claim which the umpire disallowed. I was requested to attend to same without delay. I did so, telling them at the office to phone to Victoria Docks and get in touch with the men and meet me in the club room near Tidal Basin station. On my arrival all the men were sitting in the room, quietly awaiting me. I at once took the chair and opened out:

Good day, lads. Word came from the Dock House about you putting in a claim which their official says is not justified. Since the increased overall rate was agreed to, this is the first time there has been a stoppage: if the case is a sound one I shall do my best to get the claim recognised, so I’ve come down to get the facts, and then go and see the cargo if need be. Who’ll state the case?

After a few seconds one of the biggest fellows, well over six foot, came up to me at the table, and said:

Look here, Mr Tom Mann, the other Sunday morning there was a meeting on the waste ground, wasn’t there?

Yes, and I was there.

Yes, and you told us then the workers didn’t get more than one-half of the wealth they produced, didn’t you?

Yes, that’s so.

Well, we bloody well want some of the other half!

And he returned to his seat.

If the Dock House people could have witnessed and heard this little episode they would, I expect, have laughed well at my being so confronted. The real fact was, the men had worked consecutively for four days under very heavy conditions, and they could not go on without a rest, the work being really exhausting. The claim was not seriously put in, it was chiefly an excuse to get a necessary rest.