Issue date
12 Mar 2001

IT ALL BEGAN with a strike of a few labourers at the West India Dock, on August 13th, 1889, only a few days after the London gas-workers, led by Will Thorne, had confronted the gas companies with the demand for an eight-hour day -and got it. Ben Tillett, secretary of the "Tea Workers' and General Labourers Union", and the strikers' spokesman, received immediate offers of help from those two tireless militants, John Burns and Tom Mann. The strike spread to the East India Dock, and the Port of London was brought to a standstill.

The dockers' marches through the City, stage-managed by Burns and made spectacular by the banners and emblems and totem poles crowned with stinking fish-heads and rotting onions - current samples of the dockers' diet - went from strength to strength; but the strikers' relief funds sank lower and lower. Until, finally, the desperate choice facing the strikers seemed to be between capitulation and the forlorn hope of calling a strike of all trades in London.

One of the great marches through the City of London that were organised by John Burns to compel the nation to give its reluctant attention to the dockers' two principal claims: the claim for the abolition of contract work, a chief cause of sweated labour, and the claim for a minimum wage of sixpence an hour - the "dockers' tanner".

Then suddenly, out of the blue from Australia, money began to pour in for the sustenance of the London strikers. Money from the wharf labourers of Brisbane; from almost every Australian trade union; from Australian football clubs. About £30,000 in all: a sum to make the dock companies jittery, and reluctantly disposed to meet with a mediation committee that was set up in the Mansion House by the Lord Mayor (who subsequently withdrew) but which was endowed with the persistent assistance of that remarkable conciliator Cardinal Manning.

The dockers obtained the major part of what they wanted. A famous victory, which lifted the hearts not only of the London dockers, but of other workers - gas-workers, railwaymen, textile workers, building workers, shipbuilding and metal workers, miners and boot and shoe operatives, all of whom drew their own moral from the story of the struggle for the dockers' tanner, and rallied to their own appropriate unions.

A meeting of the ad hoc mediation committee at the Mansion House

Ben Tillet (in the left foreground) and Cardinal Manning (at the far corner of the table, right) at a meeting of the ad hoc mediation committee at the Mansion House, with John Burns (in the right foreground). Mainly from the efforts of these three men and of thousands of anonymous dockers, the satisfactory settlement of the great docks strike emerged.

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