Today in London’s rebel history: hanging of coalheavers in Shadwell breaks the ‘river strike’, 1768.

For centuries one of the hardest jobs on the London docks was coalheaving: unloading coal from ships to warehouses from where it was sent off to fuel the City and industrial expansion. Much of the works was centred on Wapping and Shadwell. The pay was crap and the job was long and hard. Plus gangs of heavers were often controlled and organised by powerful City merchants and local publicans.

The Wapping and Shadwell coalheavers, many of who were Irish, were organised in gangs, among who were the “Bucks” & the “Brothers”, said by some to be allied to the Irish Whiteboy gangs. So many Irish coalheavers lived in the Cable Street area it was known as ‘Knockfergus’. They went on strike several times in the eighteenth century.

In 1768, at a time of starvation & mass unrest in the country, a coal-heavers strike, over a demand for a 4 pence pay rise, erupted into vicious class violence. fought in & around the taverns of the area, 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, coal and sugar magnate, powerful West Indies slave owner & trader, and city politician. The undertakers designed methods of work to reduce wages & cut unloading times; the heavers struck.

Metcalf was keeper of the Salutation Inn in Wapping, 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. Green was charged with murder but acquitted: his witnesses were assaulted.

By May, the masters had decided to refuse the pay rise and engaged sailors to load and unload their coal. This was a very dangerous mistake and when opportunity arose coal-heavers boarded a collier as it unloaded and told the sailors that if they remained on the ship they would be killed. Next day, sailors taking leave from unloading another vessel were attacked. Two were wounded and one, John Beatty, stabbed to death. Violent street fights continued between sailors and striking coal-heavers and two ship’s masters were also severely beaten the following week. Inevitably and with the dull predictability of all bloody reprisals the magistrates and the army were called in, caught the ringleaders and executed them.

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.

The heavers were supported to an extent by Ralph Hodgson, a liberal paternalist Shadwell magistrate. In May, the heavers began stopping coal carts on land, & addressing notices & petitions to wharfingers & other workers. They disciplined scabs.

The strike collapsed but not until the sailors themselves had decided to blockade the Port of London. In May, sailors joined the struggle, striking for wage rise. They raised the red flag: their decision to ‘strike the sails’, literally cut them from the masts, gave 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 government assigned armed ships into the Pool. War broke out in the docks, with scores of deaths.

9 coalheavers were charged with the murder of the sailor Beatty: 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, seven more Irish coalheavers were hanged at Sun Tavern Fields (just the north of the Highway, where Cable Street now runs), 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 two were killed for unloading coal).


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


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