Ann Stafford: A Match to Fire the Thames

In those last years of the 1800s it really did seem as if the Thames might catch fire. Ann Stafford, author of this book, wouldn’t have been entirely pleased perhaps, she consistently supports the cautious Ben Tillett as against the socialist dream of general strike and revolution. But this is a very readable story of the series of labour agitations (match girls, gasworkers and finally the dockers’ strike) that weaves together reporting from the time and is written much in the same style.

A telling, if poetic, sentence that shows Stafford’s distance from the class she is describing:

The Cholera epidemic of 1866 had startled West London into a shuddering awareness of her insanitary neighbour, East London, which coiled around her flank with its mass of ill-housed, half-starving people, breeding pestilence, many of them vicious and criminal, all dangerous, surely, to society (31).

There are lots of fascinating asides that I have made fairly listy for better or for worse…but it is similar in a way to the structure of the book, that flits around backgrounds before entering into the narrative of the strike itself. It remembers pubs that are no more, like the Blue Posts, which had ‘long been a favourite meeting places of the stevedores. They were welcome: big, well-muscled men with plenty of money to spend, you wouldn’t catch them sitting down four to a pint pot, the way the underpaid and undernourished dockers did’ (17).

Four to a pint pot, and their missus starving no doubt.

Here is more on the history of the Blue Posts:

In the eighteenth century the Blue Posts Tavern stood on the south side of Limehouse Causeway at its junction with Pennyfields and Back Lane. Soon after the West India Dock Road had been formed the establishment moved to a new building on the north-east side of that road, south of Back Lane. (fn. 6) The Blue Posts public house (No. 73) was a three-storey brick building of three bays. It was extended to the south-east (No. 75) in 1876 with a two-storey block giving a long street frontage. The Blue Posts, with the Railway Tavern and Jamaica Tavern, was well placed to serve labourers and others passing to and from the West India Docks. Charles W. Brown, son of the famous Charlie Brown (see below), displayed half of his father’s curio collection at the Blue Posts in the 1930s.

The Wade’s Arms is the pub most central to this story, however, at 15 Jeremiah Street, E14 (now partly Rigden Street), but it was demolished in 1944.

Almost every physical remnant of this period of labour history is gone.

Stafford doesn’t care about or question the thread of Empire that runs through this, the efforts to claim the rewards of the conquerors for the working men of the conquering race. There is, to me, a fairly incredible comparison between the dockers fighting for wages and the British soldiers under siege at Lucknow during the Indian uprising of 1857, John Burns in a rousing speech intertwined Empire with the struggle of labour:

I tell you, lads, we will no more surrender than the men in Lucknow surrendered. Now these men fought for a glory which was effervescent and ephemeral; but they nobly did their duty and stood up against a storm of shot and shell, disease and want, and all the miseries of that long siege. You, men, have to hold another citadel today. We are defending our Lucknow–the Lucknow of Labour. Too long have you been cooped up in the prison houses of poverty, suffering, privation and disease, and all the hardships of your lot. But courage! Relief is at hand. As our garrison in Lucknow, straining their eyes towards the horizon, saw the silver sheen of the bayonets of the relieving army, so from this parapet, I too see on the horizon a silver gleam–not the gleam of bayonets to be imbrued in the blood of a brother, but the silver sheen of the full round orb of the docker’s tanner. (quoted p 27)

And then there is this:

“I believe,” said Will Thorne, “that nowhere in the world have white men had to endure such terrible conditions as those under which the dockers work.” (40)

White men were not the only men to work the docks, but others don’t enter this story at all except in a single cringeworthy reference to all men pulling together in the very first pages. But there is a over and over that strong sense that dock work was the lowest possible work of all, these workers the lowest of all workers: “To have worked at the docks is sufficient to damn a man for any other work,” remarked Beatrice Webb (36). Margaret Harkness in her fictional account of the fall of a young man from the country, says the same — there is little to no hope of being fit for anything else after working there with its brutal conditions and starvation wages and odd hours.

All but Ben Tillett believed it impossible to organise them until they proved otherwise.

There’s some background on the dock companies —  4 dock companies ran 7 docks, and they were famously incompetent apparently — Victoria & Albert Dock at Tilbury, The East India and West India Docks,  the London Dock, St Katharine’s Dock, the Millwall Dock, and the Surrey Commercial Dock. They competed with other docks and other ports — primarily Liverpool and Southampton, especially after opening of the Suez Canal. Revenue at East &West India Docks fell from 4 1/2 percent in 1884 to 0 in 1887, London & St Katharine stood at 1 percent in 1888. This in spite of men fighting each other at their gates for the lowest possible wages, working only the hours needed and turned away for the rest. There is a great post on the ‘call-on’ here.

Stafford describes some of the docker’s living quarters, no different perhaps, from the rookeries of Saffron Hill and Bethnal Green, but surely much colder, damper being right alongside the river:

Only the poorest of the dockers, the casual laborers, lived near their work, in the narrow dark streets which ran between the river and Commercial Road. Some of the older houses tottering on the river bank had degenerated and were now let off room by room; they were often known as ‘rookeries,’ for not only did each room contain a family much too big for it, but at night the vary stairs served as perches for men and women who could not afford a room at all (39).

I enjoyed the book’s brief bios of the working class heroes of the strike — Will Crooks, born in Shirbut Street, Poplar — now the site of the Will Crooks Maternity and Child Welfare Crisis. He would speak just outside East India Dock gate every Sunday morning:

He did not only talk about their grievances–a subject of which they never tired–he started them thinking about all the good things that they wanted, public libraries, technical institutes, even a tunnel under the Thames…Crooks’ College, Poplar people called these meetings, and Crooks’ College went on Sunday after Sunday, year after year, almost without interruption, even when Will was elected to the London County Council, served on the Board of Guardians, became Mayor of Poplar, and in 1903 was returned to Parliament as Labour M.P. for Woolwich (47-48).

Ben Tillett (more about him in further posts, this book takes his side in almost all things but he is a complex man at best — they were all complex in the ways that race and class and gender intersected, often for the worst, in the work and speeches of everyone named here). Will Thorne — ‘In 1881, when times were difficult in Birmingham, he walked to London, and luckily for him he got a job at once at the Old Kent Road Gas Works…’ (51). John Burns. Annie Besant — the only woman to receive her own few pages of biography in here. But the best fragment is about Beatrice Webb, who shared the speaker’s platform at one event in Canning Town:

He [Tillett] says: “…neither I nor any of the other people on the platform appeared to have made a very satisfactory impression on our rather aristocratically prejudiced visitor. She was young, clever, much petted by the intellectuals of the older generation, undoubtedly sincere, anxious to help, but somewhat condescending.” On the other he appeared to her as “undoubtedly sincere, but rather dull.” (57)

There comes a mention of Eleanor Marx in passing,

But Mrs. Aveling–the daughter of Karl Marx–was a sad, foreign looking lady, unhappily married, so they said, to the professor who sometimes came down to speak on socialism at open air meetings (18).

She, and the beautiful wife of Mr Burns are mentioned a handful of times as running the union accounts, but they have little further role in this story. There is a brief mention of Clementina Black — my god, Miss Clementina Black! An amazing woman, one I must read of further. But there is a long chapter on the Match Girls strike, the low wages, the sweated labour, the ‘phossy jaw’ — bones eaten away by phosphorous. It hurts your heart.

They were fierce, these women. They worked in the old Bryant and May factory just down the road from where I lived in Bow when I first moved to London. A gated community of luxury apartments now, I had always wondered about that building.

match-girls1

Matchwomen at Bryant and May's factory shortly before their famous strike

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They went on strike, simply walked out fed up and organised union and strike fund afterwards, and still they won. After this, the tram workers organised, meeting at midnight at  Pilgrim Hall in the New Kent Rd — the only time they could all get together being off shift. They demanded five journeys a day rather than six, and got their demands. Workers at the Beckton Gas Works organised, and won an eight hour day, with fewer retorts to fill and no reduction in wages without ever going on strike. This was led by Will Thorne, and he was present at the burst of discontent that would kick off the docker’s strike.

This fills the remainder of the book — the organising of the pickets, how the more charismatic John Burns came to lead it rather than Ben Tillett who had been organising there all along.

John Burns addressing a meeting during the strike of 1889. © National Maritime Museum, London
John Burns addressing a meeting during the strike of 1889.
© National Maritime Museum, London

The mass meetings on Tower Hill to report back on progress with negotiations at Dock House on Leadenhall Street. The move of the campaign from Tillett’s headquarters at Wroote Coffee House to The Wade’s Arms, the reorganisation of relief for thousands of men on strike (saved in the key last days of hunger and misery by thousands of pounds collected and sent from Australia). The brakes put on the strike, when more men wanted to join, such as the engineers from Westwood and Baillie of Millwall and were discouraged from doing so.

A description of Burns from the Star, August 27, highlighting that this is a manly man’s strike:

He carried a short, stout stick. His keen, strong eye, looking out from his strong rugged face and from beneath dark brows, glanced round the room with a searching look… There is something about Burns that gives you, the moment you see him, a great sense of power. It is partly perhaps the splendid physique–like a brawny blacksmith: it is partly the straight and fearless eyes; it is partly the easy and strong pose of an athlete, as he sits on the arm of a chair, with his Inverness cape thrown loosely back; it is partly the virile voice–slightly husky now, from over-speaking, but still deep and resonant and masculine (138).

There are other short notes I found of interest:

‘The once notorious Mahogany Bar in Ratcliffe Highway, since 1888 a Non-Conformist Mission Centre, provided 700-800 breakfasts daily and soup for wives and children at mid-day’ (140).

The outpouring of support, the women who cooked and raised money were tremendous. There is another mention of someone I know:

That mysterious figure, Miss Harkness, who had been constantly in touch with the Committee at The Wade’s Arms, came to him [Cardinal Manning], he says, “from the strikers.” Old Newman, his butler, was disinclined to admit her…But within half an hour, the persistent Miss Harkness had seen the Cardinal… (155)

And this on other unions from my side of the river:

The only trade of any great importance was the coal trade. The men of Clapham and Wandsworth struck on the persuasion of the North London men. The Brixton men seemed likely to join (154).

14,000 tickets were being handed out to men on strike by the men, an extraordinary logistical effort requiring immense resources. The role of the women running this cannot be underestimated though it does not appear here really.

Again from the Surrey side, the unexpected actions of Mr Henry Lafone, who ran Butler’s Wharf and allowed his own men on strike two shillings a day.

I’m not sure how to take Stafford’s description of the ‘No Work Manifesto’ — essentially calling for a general strike if the Dock Companies did not move towards an acceptable compromise. Stafford is clearly not in favour and saw this as the move that hardened the opposition and lost the support of the public. She describes with great favour the Conciliation Committee — the Bishop of London, the Lord Mayor, Cardinal Manning, Mr Sydney Buxton, M.P. for Poplar. This is not a committee I would trust particularly to negotiate on the behalf of working men, even though the shipowners and many men of wealth and business were on the side of the dockers at the end. I do think Stafford’s class identity consistently betrays her in the telling of this story both in its focus and in its view of strategy and acceptable goals. But there is nothing about her online, only that Stafford is a pseudonym and her real name was Ann Pedlar, this in spite of the fact she is the author of nine other books listed inside the cover. It’s as if no one cared about women writing histories of the unions, imagine that.

Back to the dockers though, I am looking forward to hearing this in their own words and there are multiple autobiographies, but to finish with Stafford’s account.

There was some last-minute negotiating, rushed conferences, lack of full consultation — so familiar, it is all so familiar. They reached a compromise finally, called it a victory though it was debatable how much exactly the dockers had won. Stafford writes:

This then, was the great achievement: unskilled men had learned how to combine, and as a result, the ‘New Unionism’ of 1889 laid the foundations of the Trade Unionism of today. Almost overnight the tiny Tea Operatives and General Labourers Union became the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers Union of Great Britain and Ireland, which was in time to become the Transport and General Workers Union with its Headquarters at Transport House (202).

[Stafford, Ann (1961) A Match to Fire the Thames. London: Hodder and Stoughton.]

More on the East End…

 

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