Today in London’ rebel history: Striking Coalheavers battle scabs on ships, Wapping, 1768.

For centuries London’s economy was dependent on the burning of coal. But being as not that much coal was hewn in the Brixton hills… hundreds of thousands of tons of coal used to arrive in the London docks every year.

The job of unloading coal from ships was dirty, grueling and knackering. The coalheavers of Wapping and Shadwell were famous for their heavy drinking, hard-living and potential for violence. They were also prone to a spot of collective direct action… Organised through lodges known as the “Bucks” & the “Brothers”, they went on strike several times in 18th century. Many of the coalheavers were Irish, residents of Irish-dominated areas like ‘KnockFergus’ in Cable Street.

The struggles of the coalheavers for better wages and conditions climaxed in the huge ‘river strike’ of 1768. At a time of starvation & mass unrest, movements for political reform were sparking riots in support of John Wilkes, and class struggles were erupting everywhere (most notably among the Spitalfields silkweavers).

A coal-heavers strike, over a demand for a 4d pay rise, erupted into vicious class violence: fought in and around the taverns of Wapping and Shadwell, since the heaving gangs were organised from the taverns. Some of the taverns were pro-coalheavers, some were run by ‘undertakers’ (subcontractors), like Metcalf & Green, who were hired by Alderman Beckford of Billingsgate Ward, rich coal and sugar magnate, one of the most powerful West Indies slave owners & slave traders; also a leading City of London politician. The undertakers designed methods of work to reduce wages & cut unloading times; the heavers struck as a result.

Metcalf and Green gathered scab labour at taverns; the pubs became the major theatre for the war. The Bucks met at the Horse & Dray (probably in Garnet Street) & the Brothers at the Star on Wapping Wall, and the Pewter Dish (on the river, probably where King Edward Memorial Park is). The Ship & Shears was gutted in February. The King of Prussia, on Wapping High Street ,was gutted in March.

Metcalf was keeper of Wapping’s Salutation Inn, which was destroyed by rioting coalheavers in February 1768. Green organised scab labour from his Roundabout Tavern (in Gravel Lane, now Garnet Street), which was attacked with gunfire in April: a coalheaver & a shoemaker were killed.

Armed with cutlasses and clubs, the striking coal-heavers besieged the pub until driven off by gunfire from the (now broken) windows. Next day the men returned and attempted to ‘cut [Green] to pieces and hang him on his sign’. Green retreated but retaliated by shooting dead two (or three) of the attackers. The justices did for the rest, condemning seven assailants to the gallows which had been erected on Stepney Green, but not before Green’s sister had also been brutally murdered (‘torn to death’) in retaliation.

The heavers were supported to an extent by Ralph Hodgson, a liberal paternalist Shadwell magistrate; to some extent a struggle in the City authorities between paternalism and laissez-faire capitalist ‘progressives’ was being played out, with the coalheavers as proxies.

Green was charged with murder but acquitted: his witnesses were assaulted. In May, the heavers began stopping coal carts on land, & addressing notices & petitions to wharfingers & other workers. They disciplined scabs. Also in May, sailors joined the struggle, demanding a wage rise, raising the red Flag, & ‘striking the sails’ (cutting them from the mast, giving the word ‘strike’ its modern meaning). River shipping was at a standstill. A meeting of merchants at Cornhill gave way on some demands, but a fleet arrived from Newcastle, & its sailors worked as scabs, breaking the alliance.

The coalheavers sang:

Five pounds for a sailor’s head
And twenty for a masters.
We will cut the lightermen’s throats
And murder all the meters.

By May, the masters had decided to refuse the pay rise and engaged sailors to load and unload their coal. The government assigned armed ships into the Pool. War broke out in the docks, with scores of deaths. Heavers boarded the Thames and Mary in Shadwell Dock in May & threatened to kill any sailor who carried on unloading. As sailors began to unload coal on the next day, Whit Sunday, at Shadwell Dock, a riot broke out – & a young sailor was fatally wounded. 9 coalheavers were charged with his murder: James Murphy & James Duggan were found guilty: they were hanged at Tyburn on July 11th, & their bodies given to the surgeons to dissect, while a huge crowd mourned outside, keening in Gaelic. On July 26th, 7 more Irish coalheavers were hanged at Sun Tavern Fields (just the north of the Highway, where Cable Street is), where the heavers held mass meetings. 50 000 people attended, rescue attempts were expected, so troops patrolled Wapping & Shadwell, 100s of constables enforced the event. The terrifying affect of the hanging broke the river workers resolve: troops were kept in the area till September (though 2 were killed for unloading coal), ships were protected; attempts were made though, to increase wages & reform the hiring systems of the port of London.

Magistrate Hodgson lost his seat on the bench for his paternalist approach to the heavers: repression was the order of the day.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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