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On 14 August 1889, London’s dockworkers went on strike and brought the greatest port in the world to a standstill. Five weeks later, their demands were met: they got a ‘docker’s tanner’ – sixpence an hour – and shifts lasting no less than four hours.

This was a milestone in the rise of New Unionism, which gave a voice to unskilled, casual, poorly paid workers. Tens of thousands were members of the Dockers Union by the strike’s end. So what made the strike such a success?

The inspirational match women

In 1888, 1400 women and girls working at the Bryant and May match factory in East London downed tools and walked out. Business was thriving but working conditions were appalling. Three weeks and lots of high-profile campaigning later, the workers’ demands were met and they returned victoriously to work. When morale was low, the dock leaders would use the match women as a shining example to spur their men on.

Crowd of striking dockworkers
A meeting outside the West India Dock gates

Tom Mann’s awe-inspiring speaking skills

One of the strike leaders was Tom Mann. He had left school at nine, destined to spend his life working in the mines. Instead, he went on to become the greatest Labour activist and speaker of his time. “I have never heard anyone like him,” said writer Bonar Thompson. “Fire, vehemence, passion, humour, drama and crashing excitement. There has never been anyone to equal him.”

But Tom was modest, too. According to politician Henry Hyndman: “After a speech has roused his audience to the highest pitch of almost hysterical enthusiasm, down Tom will step from the chair in the open air or from the platform in the hall, and take names for the branch or organisation – and sell literature to all and sundry as if he were the least-considered person at the gathering.”

A morale-boosting landlady

At the strike’s headquarters – The Wade’s Arms pub in Poplar, East London – landlady Mrs Hickey was like a mother to the exhausted strike leaders, feeding them up with hearty stews and big breakfasts. Her unwavering enthusiasm played a big part in boosting morale.

Powerful, peaceful marches

The dockers’ marches were thrilling. Thousands of workers carried banners emblazoned with slogans and totem poles crowned with stinking fish heads and rotting onions – samples of the dockers’ diet. Others were on huge floats in fancy dress, presenting scenes of the gulf between rich bosses and poor workers. Police presence was strong but the dockers marched peacefully.

With their perceptions of the poor challenged for the first time, the middle classes showed their support. The Star newspaper reported that balconies of exclusive hotels were thronged with spectators: “Opera glasses were much in request, and rich men and women waved their handkerchiefs as a token of sympathy with their poor brothers marching below…”

Eleventh hour miracle money from Down Under

It may have paralysed the most important port in the world, but the strike was in danger. Funds were sinking and people were starving. Then, suddenly, £30,000 came pouring in from trade unions in Australia. The strikers were back in the game! On Saturday 14 September an agreement was signed and the strike ended. The next day there was a triumphant procession to Hyde Park through blazing sunshine, with the Australian flag leading the march.

On Monday the dockers returned to work. The Star reported that “As they walked they filled the morning air with a wonderful sound – the sharp, ringing tramp, clamp, trampety, clampety tramp of the thousands of heavy boot heels on the resounding flagstones.”