Today in London’s striking herstory, 1890: Sweet Victory! East End chocolate factory workers win strike

In 1890, women working in a Mile End chocolate factory went on strike. The chocolate workers’ strike boosted the growth of women’s trade unionism in late Victorian England.

In the aftermath of the 1888 Matchwomen’s Strike in and London Dock Strike in 1889, trade unionism flourished, especially among previously un-unionised workers, often labelled unskilled or semi-skilled. Between 1888 and 1892 union membership doubled from 750,000 to 1.5 million. London’s East End, where both these seminal struggles had taken place, saw a particular spike in union growth – inspiration spreading also because people probably had direct contact and knowledge of the 1888-9 events, taking place in front of their eyes…

Among the many strikes and disputes that broke out was a short sharp stoppage by East End chocolate makers in 1890. Though not high profile, this struggle was victorious, and encouraged others organising among London’s tens of thousands of young women workers.

Although Factory Acts had been passed in the UK through the 19th century to prohibit children working in factories, older children and ‘teenagers’ (a term or concept not yet developed then…) were often exempted.

In the late 19th century, girls of 13 and upward were often employed in confectionary, jam, and other small food factories (while young boys were more likely to be found in rope-works, foundries, paper mills…). The work was often hard, with long hours; as the work was often classes as low-skilled, wages were generally low – compounded by the general attitude among employers (and some trade unionists as well!) that women’s work, and especially young women’s work, was less important or deserved lower rates of pay. Employers also felt they could treat women worse, with poorer conditions, more strict rules and bullying.

A meeting aimed at young women working at Messrs Allen’s chocolate factory was held on 10 July 1890, at the offices of the Women’s Trade Union League, at 128 Mile End Road. Earlier attempts to help workers in the mainly small confectionary factories of East and South London had come to nothing. On this occasion, however, “twelve girls came, and their dread of being followed, watched and subsequently discharged was pitiful,” wrote Black. They were mainly earning around 17 shillings a week, employed packing chocolate into boxes

The next day, Women’s Trade Union League full-time organiser Miss James (a former confectionary worker) visited Allen’s factory in Emmot Street, to distribute handbills and at explaining the objects of the union.

However, arriving at Allen’s, she found that a lockout had already started.

“To her amazement she found the girls standing about in a crowd, though it was not yet seven o’clock. They surrounded her, telling her that they were ‘out’ and asking anxiously, ‘What shall we do?’ ‘Is there anybody who will help us?’

Miss James led them to the office of the Women’s Trade Union Association, where the Union secretary, Clementina Black, was working. Black described how:

“In a twinkling the room was full and over-full of girls, and the street outside was full of those girls who could not come in, and of the fringe of onlookers which gathers so speedily in that great boulevard of the East End, the Mile End Road.”

Six of the young women workers gradually told their story. Their working conditions were hard and management vicious. The workers were banned from leaving the factory in the dinner hour, forbidden to eat between eight and one on weekdays and between eight and two on Saturdays. This meant the women spent all day from 8am to 7pm inside the factory. They also suffered numerous petty fines and fines and deductions from their pay.

The current dispute had been sparked by a fine imposed on one woman had slipped and fallen on the job. The forewoman had issued her with a fine of half a crown for falling over: refusing to pay, she had been summoned to the office the next morning, and threatened with the sack unless she paid up. In response, the other women working on the shop floor had stopped work and demanded her reinstatement. No work got done that day…!

At 5pm, factory owner Mr Allen himself came down to investigate, and locked the women out; told the women to “put on their hats and go home”.

Clementina Black called on well-known union organiser John Burns for help. A meeting for all the factory girls employed at Allen’s was held at Mile End Liberal and Radical Club; a committee was elected and a register drawn up. All those present also joined the union.

The following Monday, John Burns and Miss James accompanied the strikers to the factory gates before 8am, and a “business-like system of picketing” set up. Only eight factory workers went in to work, though occasionally “a clerk would peep out” to see what was going on.

A strike committee room was set up in nearby Skidmore Street, and a “polite note” was sent to Mr Allen requesting for a meeting for negotiations. Some 200 women were on strike by then, many aged around 16 or 17.

Since the Women’s Trade Union League was not able to use its union funds to support strikes, raising money to support the 80 or 90 young women who were out on strike became vital. Funds were mainly raised by personal appeals to other trade unions and workers directly. Very quickly workers began to contribute. Burns himself collected more than £50 in an hour at the London County Council offices; at the Woolwich Arsenal and in the docks, men lined up to donate coppers to the cause. An envelope postmarked House of Commons also arrive – containing £5. Soon the union organisers were able to issue tickets allowing the girls to get lunch and tea.

Many young women working at Messrs Allen’s other East End factories, at Canal Road and Copperfield Road, also wanted to join the strike. Not wanting to escalate the dispute, John Burns persuaded them to carry on working as normal, but promised that they should be called on to join the strike if necessary.

By the Wednesday, Allen had replied to the letter sent by Burns, declining mediation and saying that he would rather deal with his workers directly. “On this, a deputation of girls was elected, and a letter sent in, asking Mr Allen to see them.” They demanded:
– reinstatement for the young woman whose dismissal had sparked the strike,
– a right to leave the factory at lunchtime,
– an end to fines,
– an end to the practice of suspending those who were absent for a further two or three days,
– a promise of no punishment for those who had joined the union.

Allen now changed tack and agreed to meet John Burns before beginning talks with the workers. Burns and Allen engaged in a three-hour discussion which left no-one in doubt that the dispute would soon be over. A further series of meetings between Burns, Allen, Black and the striking factory workers themselves followed, which eventually worked out a solution largely favourable to the women.

Allen agreed to all the demands except the abolition of fines for lateness, though he agreed to reduce them, and to withdraw these at the end of the year as long as workers’ attendance did not suffer as a result.

An agreement was finally signed on 22 July, and work at the chocolate factory resumed.

Emmot Street, the location of this factory, seems to have disappeared, unless it has become Emmot Close, which lies just south of Mile End Road, to the west of the Regents Canal. This seems possible, since Copperfield Road (site of another of Allen’s factories) is just round the corner over the canal, and while another local road named as containing an Allen factory – Canal Road, also doesn’t exist, there’s a Canal Close one street away. Looks like there might have been a cluster of Allen factories within a few streets.  

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Related: Another, slightly later strike among women workers in South London at the Corruganza Box factory

The 1911 Bermondsey Strikes, taking place during another upsurge of working class workplace organising that in many ways echoed the ‘new unionism’ spike, also began among women working in confectionary and jam factories.

 

 

 

Today in London’s radical history, 1912: Great East/West End tailors strike 1912 ends in victory

London’s long history of tailoring work goes back centuries. By the 19th century clothes production expanded, as the capital’s population rocketed, and the increasing middle classes and workers created a mass market for new clothes. Working for low pay, often for long hours and in dismal conditions, London’s tailors also had a long history of getting together to fight for improvements in their working lives.

London had a long history of local production of garments for the capital’s inhabitants, usually focussed in small workshops. The West End, particularly Mayfair, (at its most famous, focused on Savile Row) became the centre for the high end of the tailoring trade: good quality clobber for the well to do, providing for the governing classes, the rich, and the growing middle classes as they achieved status, power and influence.

But the East End had a parallel tailoring trade. East London was well known for its secondhand trade in clothes since the 16th century at least, often through its rag markets. The eastern fringes of the city had built up a clothing and textile industry, notably in silk weaving; it relied on its proximity of the City and wealth districts, closeness to the centres of power and people who wanted fancy clothes. More and more this evolved into making clothes for those who wanted new clothes fast (of varying qualities). Silk production gradually gave way to tailoring workshops.

In the early 19th century, this end of the trade expanded into the cheap production of new clothes. The Industrial revolution had led to growth in factory tailoring, the production of cheap cloth and reduced production costs. East End tailoring had also always taken lots of subbed work from the West End: this increased as demand for new clothes rocketed. As the 19th century went on, gradual prosperity among the middle and emerging working classes led to a greater demand for consumer goods, including clothes. New clothes were a mark of having made something of yourself.

Separations and divisions among trade were multiple – between skilled and semi-skilled, English and foreign workers, male and female, factory worker and home/workshop hand worker… A complex web of prejudices and demarcations was aggravated by a growth in new technology, and older craft, male apprenticeship-based traditions built over centuries had been substantially challenged… The trade remained also wildly affected by trends and by seasonal demand.

Organising in the tailoring trade was as old as the trade. From the middle ages journeymen tailors had tilted at the control the masters of their guilds; in the eighteenth century, London’s tailors were such a trouble to their employers they were nick-named ‘the tailors’ republic’. Battles between workers and bosses almost always centred around long hours and low wages that afflicted the trade. Splits and tensions between groups of workers frustrated attempts to unite the journeymen; the most concerted effort at building a strong tailors union in the capital, contributing to the creation of the Owenite Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, ended in a disastrous strike in 1834 that caused the general union’s collapse.

Later in the century the trade revived, but gradually became divided between a self-selecting, highly skilled craft, high end, taking on few apprentices but recruiting from outside the capital, and the larger, lower paid, workshop or factory-based tailors, poorly treated and often precarious.

Separation between workers in the East End and the West End was further complicated by the large-scale Jewish migration into the area around Whitechapel and Stepney in the late nineteenth century.

In 1881 the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander II, and the wave of anti-semitic pogroms that followed it, forced thousands of Russian Jews to  introduced a new era in Jewish migration. The first wave of Jewish immigrants to Britain came after the May Laws of 1882, restricting Jewish trades and settlement. It was followed by a second wave 10 years later when the Jews were expelled from Moscow. Most landed in Britain having lost most of their possessions, or been robbed on the way, charged extortionate amounts to travel etc; they usually disembarked in St Katherine’s Dock, Wapping or Tilbury, and so gravitated to the poor parts of the East End. Between 1880 and 1905 Whitechapel and part of Spitalfields were transformed into a Jewish zone. Brick Lane became the main street of what was truly a ghetto, around old Montague Street, Chicksand Street, Booth Street, and Hanbury Street. By 1901 many streets around Brick Lane were 100 per cent Jewish, and in the western part of Spitalfields Jews also came to dominate life: in Wentworth Street, 48 out of 85 shops were Jewish run by the 1890s.

Overwhelmingly the majority of the Jewish workers were engaged in the tailoring and clothing trades, always an important industry in this part of the East End. Tailoring had long been associated with the Jewish diaspora. Partly this evolved from practicality – for long persecuted communities having to up and move often when facing violent attacks, this was a trade needing few tools and small space to operate but universally needed. Christian laws across Europe also banned Jews from many trades, forcing them to congregate in work like tailoring that was not proscribed. Another factor was orthodox religious tenets in judaism, which set out that observant Jews had to buy certain clothes from co-religionists.
A migrant workforce needing to survive moving into an area with a tradition of low-paid manufacture quickly led to a widespread Jewish presence in the East End tailoring trade.

But whether the masters were English or ‘aliens’ hours were long, working conditions bad and pay low; the seasonal nature of demand for new clothes also meant weeks or months when trade was slack and work was scarce. Jewish migrants escaped persecution in their homelands only to find themselves exploited in the sweatshop conditions of London’s textile industry. Like the silkweavers before them, East London’s tailors struggled to survive, workers often having to hang out, ‘on call’ waiting for someone to offer them work. Both the social nature of this process and the quiet small scale organisation of the trade combined with crap conditions to create discontent and political radicalism.

Among Jews in Eastern Europe there was a long and powerful tradition of political radicalism and trade unionism, which art the time of the migrations was evolving into a strong socialist movement.

A powerful Yiddish speaking working class movement would also develop among the East European Jewish immigrants in London’s East End. This created Jewish Socialist groupings and unions in the mid 1870s, and brought contact and alliances among the early English socialists, themselves inspired by continental migrants.

Organisation was strongest in the trades where the majority of the migrant Jews worked – in the tailoring trades, and to a lesser extent in bootmaking and among the bakers. A core of jewish workers and intellectuals who arrived came with experience of involvement in populist and nihilist groups in Eastern Europe; many developed radical critiques of their religion as well as social and political theories. For other immigrants religion became more important in a strange and hostile land, giving sense of belonging etc: this was to lead to many divisions in Jewish political and social struggles over the decades.

As ever, this migrant community aroused racism and xenophobia from the existing settled and ‘native’ residents. In the East End, Jewish communities were the targets vicious ‘anti-alien’ campaigns (like Flemings and Irish before them, and Bengalis and others after) – orchestrated usually by nationalists of rightwing stripe, but often supported by elements of the working class, and usually a substantial proportion of the local trade union movement. ‘Alien’ cultures raking over our area, threatening our way of life, taking our jobs… Some trade unionists and even socialists  justified anti-semitism by labelling Jewish workers as scabs, who would undercut existing wages and work for less because they were desperate. On occasions such accusations could even be borne out, since some migrants would by skint enough to work for less, scab during disputes, and/or feel that solidarity with trade unionists who were attacking them and calling for their expulsion from the country was not rally an ideal they could afford to subscribe to. In any case scabbing was hardly limited to migrant workers…

Jewish trade unionists and socialists were keen to build bridges with the ‘native’ movements, and besides trying to build organisation and unionisation among the Jewish workers, encouraged support for other workers’ strikes and refusal to strike-break. But they faced not only hostility from English unionists, but also from the Jewish religious establishment and many religious Jews, opposed to co-operation as they feared it would lead to ‘assimilation’ and the loss of Jewish identity, and also feared and hated leftwing ideas. Tensions between different Jewish migrant groups also hampered their work. Though there was a constant effort to build tailoring trade unions, for example, tens of such unions were launched, but split, collapsed, or failed to gain ground. Short term success was often followed by frustration and having to rebuild. The largest tailoring union, the Associated Society of Tailors, dominated by craft traditions and based in Manchester had a habit of the executive settling strikes over the heads of the members actually on strike without consulting them; this caused further splits and divisions. While many of the union organisers were socialists and anarchists, with wider visions of how workers’ organising and strikes could build towards a social revolution, the most successful activity came from battling for pragmatic and immediate demands.

A large-scale tailors strike in 1889, partly inspired by the historic Dock Strike, and organised largely through the efforts of socialists and anarchists from the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, saw a highpoint, with 6000 tailors on strike in the East End. This eventually forced he master tailors to raise wages, reduce hours and improve conditions across the area, though the concessions (which were historic) were gradually eroded by connivery of the employers over the succeeding months.

The emergence of the anarchist Arbeter Fraint group around Rudolf Rocker, several of whom were working tailors, helped cement links between Jewish and English workers. The group were centrally involved in many tailors’ strikes, including a 3-week mass strike of June 1906, which emerged from a growing militancy, sparked by a masters lockout, leading to mass walkouts and sympathy strikes. Rocker was a central inspiration and propagandist, and the strike won mass support. But the workers were driven gradually back to work by increasing hardship, and though it was settled with concessions on hours and abolition of piece work, masters also forced concessions, and union membership suffered.

By 1911-12, a general improvement in conditions of trade and employment was seeing Britain come out of a recession that had dominated the early part of the 1900s, when prices rose and wages fell in real terms. After 1910, the re-emergence of growth partly resulted in an increase in trade union action. There was also a rise in syndicalist ideas, partly under influence of the French CGT, and from the US from the de-Leonists/IWW. The theory of the General Strike as the method of workers taking over society gained some currency on the UK.
But syndicalism also proved attractive as a way of organising more immediate struggles, and also expressed trade unionists’ widespread disillusion with the business as usual union models and habits of compromise of union leaders. Syndicalism had influence in the East End – a Jewish Syndicalist Tailors Union was founded in 1908, and also developed among the Jewish anarchists.

Through 1911 a wave of strikes swept the UK – dockers, transport workers, miners, seamen struck for higher wages and better conditions, many winning improved deals. The struggle spread to many factory workers, among them people who had never unionised or gone on strike before (for instance the Bermondsey women workers who erupted in August 1911).

In 1912, the strike wave spread to London’s tailors. In April that year, 1500 tailors in the capital’s West End put in a demand for an increase in wages and better working conditions. Some were mainly members of the London Society of Tailors and Tailoresses, who backed their claim. Others, members of the larger Amalgamated Society of Tailors (and Tailoresses) West End branch, received no backing from their union. The West End master tailors rejected the workers’ demands with little consideration, resulting in an immediate strike call.

Unfinished garments in tailors workroom, due to tailors strike, Conduit Street, London, 7th May 1912.

In the East End, Rudolf Rocker saw an opportunity for Jewish tailors to not only show that Jewish workers could stand by their ‘native’ counterparts, but to fight for improvements in their own situation. The Arbeter Fraint published an editorial proposing the strike be extended to East London; following this a mass meeting of 8000 tailors, called by Rocker and Philip Kaplan secretary of the London Ladies tailors’ Union, met in the Mile End Assembly Hall, and voted for a general tailors’ strike. Two days later, over 13000 East End tailors were on strike; most of them not members of a union. “English, Jewish, Italian, French and Czech men’s tailors and mantle-makers in the bespoke, readymade, high quality and slop sectors of the industry had, for the first time, taken joint action in an attempt to increase wages and improve conditions in an industry renowned for its low pay and unhygienic workshops.” (Anne J. Kershen)

By this point in May, London dockers were also on strike, as the Port of London Authority had already reneged on its agreements after the dockers’ strike the year before. The striking tailors took in striking dockers’ children, and joint dockers and tailors strike meetings were held on Mile End Waste and at Tower Hill.

After three weeks on strike, the West end tailors and strikers in the men’s civil and military tailoring trades reached agreements with employers; leaving the East End tailors fighting alone, facing the decision as to whether they could also win…

Here’s Rudolf Rocker’s account of the 1912 strike:

“By 1912 we felt that the Jewish labour movement in England, and especially in the East  End of London, was strong enough to challenge the detested sweating system. The opportunity was provided by a strike of tailors in the West End of London in April 1912. It was called by the London Society of Tailors, and was soon actively supported by the members of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors. though the leaders of the Amalgamated were against the strike. It did not take them long however to realise that their members would do nothing against the strike.

There were about 1,500 tailors on strike, all highly-skilled craftsmen, doing the very best class of West End work. These tailors of the West End were an international crowd, Englishmen, Germans, French, Italians, Czech, and a few Jews. It was a completely different kind of work from the mass-produced sub divisional sweatshop tailoring of the East End Jewish workers. It soon became clear that strike-breaking work was being done in small East End tailoring workshops. There were so many of these that it was impossible to know of them all and to control them. The Jewish trades unions had never been able to accumulate enough funds to call a general strike. Their members didn’t earn enough to pay contributions large enough for strike pay. There was also a big mass of unorganised workers, some of whom were strike-breaking. We felt we must do something to remove the stigma of strike-breaking from the Jewish workers. lf the West End strike collapsed, the Jewish workers would be blamed for it. The entire British trade union movement would become hostile to the Jews. As it was, the English workers distrusted the Jewish immigrants, because of the sweatshop system, which they rightly saw as a danger to working class conditions. They couldn’t go into the reasons which had created the sweatshops. And it wouldn’t have altered the facts if they did.

It was therefore a point of honour with us to rouse the Jewish workers to abolish the sweatshops. It was even more Important morally than economically.

Our comrades in the Jewish trades unions brought up the question of the general strike in all of them. On 10th May I published a call in the Arbeter Fraint explaining to the workers what was at stake.

Our efforts got things moving. Over eight thousand Jewish workers packed the Assembly Hall for a meeting called by the United Jewish tailoring trades unions, which adopted the decision to strike. More than three thousand others stood outside, because the hall couldn’t hold more, waiting to hear what was decided. There was feverish excitement, and a real determination to act.

Kaplan opened the meeting. He was followed by MacDonald, the Secretary of the London Society of tailors and Chairman of the London Trades Council. The I spoke. I repeated more or less what I had already said in my call to the Jewish workers in the Arbeter Fraint. There was so much tension in the hall that no other speakers could get a hearing. The workers wanted a decision. When the vote was taken not one hand was lifted against the strike.

The strike was on. Eight thousand workers were out the first day. Another five thousand came out the day after. A small minority remained at work, but they were so few that it made little difference.   .           .

There was a strike committee of fifty members, representing all the tailoring trades unions in the East End. There were three sub-committees – finance, to raise funds for carrying on the strike; negotiations, to discuss agreements with employers prepare to accept the workers’ conditions, and one which set up the local strike committees, which were controlled by a committee of seven, to which Kaplan and I belonged.

We decided to issue the Arbeter Fraint for the duration of the strike as a four-page daily, to keep the workers informed of the progress of the strike.

Most of the strikers were not organised trade union members. Our problem was how they could get strike pay. Even the best organised trade unions in the strike, like the Mantle Makers, had no funds to meet anything like the call that was made on them. The other trades unions outside the tailoring industry had no funds with which to help. But the spirit of the workers was wonderful.

Except for the employers, who were interested parties, the whole East End was on the side of the strikers. The better-paid workers who had some savings refused to take strike pay. They even contributed to the strike fund. It didn’t swell our treasury very much. I was the Chairman of the Finance Committee, so I knew. We needed a lot of money to help the families of those strikers who were absolutely destitute. We opened canteens on the premises of all the trade unions in the East End. We were not able to provide much more than tea and bread and cheese.  But sometimes we also gave hot meals.

The Jewish Bakers Union supplied bread, and the cigarette makers provided cigarettes. All the Jewish trades unions put a levy on their members for the strike fund. Many who were not workers themselves and had no contact with the labour movement sent us money. The Yiddish theatre gave several performances to benefit the strikers. As a result we were ale to pay the strikers a few shillings during the first weeks.

The strike had started in sympathy with the West End tailoring workers. Now we had to draw up our own strike demands. What we wanted was to sweep away the whole sweating system. So our first demand was a normal working day. We asked for the abolition of overtime higher wages and above all, no more small workshops where decent hygienic conditions were impossible, and closed union workshops in all the rest. Without trade union labour there could be no guarantee that the better working conditions we obtained would last.

The employers association was as little prepared for the strike as the workers were. The Masters’ Association had about 300 members, which was only a fraction of the many hundreds who had small tailoring workshops in the East End. But the Masters’ Association had the backing of the big city firms for whom its members worked. The city firms had decided not to give any of their work to master tailors who accepted the workers’ conditions.

It was no secret that we had no funds. The Masters’ Association was therefore sure that we could not hold out more than a couple of weeks, and that sheer hunger would drive the workers back, ready to agree to anything. They had in answer to the strike retaliated with a three weeks’ lock-out. They had no doubt at all that before the end of the three weeks the workers would come begging to let them return.

The spokesman of the Master Tailors’ Association, a man named Samson, tried to create feeling against he strikers by alleging in statements to the English press that they had no real grievances, and were being used as tools in a pot by foreign anarchists to disrupt the industry. He produced false wage-sheets according to which the workers were earning anything between six pounds and ten pounds a week. Reading the reports he put out one got the impression that the infamous sweatshops of the East End were a paradise.

But the workers who slaved in those sweatshops knew what they were really like, and they were determined to stay out on strike whatever happened, in order to win better conditions. All our agitation would have been useless if the workers had not themselves stood firm. People often say the masses don’t know their own mind; this time they did. Attempts were made to play on the natural fears of the womenfolk, for who the strike meant literally no bread in the house. But the women too of the Jewish East End stood firm. There were big mass meetings of women at which they proclaimed their determination to stand by their menfolk in the strike until the end.

It so happened that the big London Dock Strike was on at the same time.

The common struggle brought Jewish and non-Jewish workers together. Joint strike meetings were held, and the same speakers spoke at huge joint demonstrations on Tower Hill and on Mile End Waste.

I was busy attending all the meetings of the strike committee, acting as Chairman of the Finance Committee and editing the daily Arbeter Fraint. I worked on the paper from six in the morning till eleven. I addressed three or four strike meetings every day. I never go finished before two in he morning. Luckily I had a robust constitution. I wasn’t the only one who worked these hours. We were all at our posts day and night.

Three weeks after the strike started he workers and the employers in the West End reached a settlement. The result was that the East End workers employed in men’s tailoring, including uniforms, also went back to work, their employers having agreed to their most important demands – shorter hours, no piecework, better sanitary conditions and the employment of union labour only.

The strike in the women’s garment industry continued. This was the branch of the industry in which the East End Jews, masters and workers, were overwhelmingly engaged. Both sides were suffering badly. The master tailors had lost their season’s trade and were getting worried. The workers had no funds left, and were going hungry. The Masters’ Association decided to meet the men’s representatives, and said they would agree to shorter hours and higher wages, but not to closed union shops.

The strike committee called a meeting of the strikers in the Pavilion Theatre. It started at midnight, after the performance was over. The place was packed. Crowds who couldn’t get in stood outside waiting to hear the decision. Kaplan, as Chairman of the strike committee, opened the meeting. The strikers listened to him silently. There was no interruption, no opposition, no applause. A murmur ran round the building when I stood up as the first speaker. I saw those pale, pinched, hungry faces, those thousands of people who had come together at midnight to decide what to do about this strike for which they had sacrificed so much. I felt that I dare not conceal anything from them. I must tell them the whole truth. I explained the position to them. I said that if they held out a few more days I was sure they would win. lf they decided to go back now the masters would make them feel that they had lost. “But the decision,” I said,  “rests with you. I am not going to tell you what to do. You must decide for yourselves.” There was an outburst of applause, and from all sides came the cry: “The strike goes on!”

When the Chairman took the vote, not one single hand was raised against the decision to continuo the strike.

The Masters’ Association met the following morning. Samson insisted that they must hold out. But the great majority had had enough. They withdrew from the Association, leaving only a few members to continue the opposition to the workers’ demands. Negotiations started the same afternoon. We were astonished to find that Samson was one or the first who came to ask the trade union to let him reopen his workshop. Our answer was that we could not deal with him until we had settled with all the other master tailors. He had been the leader of the opposition to our demands and would therefore have to wait to the last. Even after he had signed the agreement nobody wanted to go to work for him.

I had played a leading part of course in the organisation and conduct of the strike, but legends began to grow around me as though I had been the sole organiser and architect of the victory. People ascribed to me things I had never done and had never even heard of. There were many others who had done as much as I did. But the popular mind and tongue insisted that I had done more, that I had done most of it. It was terribly exaggerated, it was fanstastic. It was most embarrassing. I couldn’t put my foot out in the street without becoming the object of a demonstration. One day as I was walking along a narrow Whitechapel street with Milly, an old Jew with a white beard stopped me outside his house, and said: ‘”May God bless You! You helped my children in their need. You are not a Jew, but you are a man!” This old man lived in a completely different world from mine. But the memory of the gratitude that shone in his eyes has remained with me all these years.

The London dock strike was still dragging on. A great many dockers families were suffering real want. The Jewish workers who had just won their own strike felt they must do something to help their fellow workers.

The Arbeter Fraint took it up; we started a campaign. We called a conference of the Jewish trades unions. A committee was set up, and our comrades Ploshansky and Sabelinsky were elected secretary and treasurer. It was decided to ask Jewish families in the East End to take some or the dockers’ children into their homes. Offers poured in. Unfortunately we couldn’t accept them all. Members of the committee always went first to see the house and too often the family couldn’t feed its own children properly. When we found a suitable home, Milly would go to the docks area with one or two other women to fetch the children. They were in a terribly undernourished state, barefoot, In rags. We placed over 500 dockers’ children in East End Jewish homes. Shopkeepers gave us shoes and clothing for them. Trade union leaders and social workers in the docks area spoke publicly of the kindness shown by the East End Jews. The docker parents used to come to the Jewish homes in Whitechapel and Stepney to see their children. It did a great deal to strengthen the friendship between Jewish and non-Jewish workers.”

Anne J Kershen identifies this strike as qualitatively different to many previous tailors’ strikes, achieving victory and inspiring a rapid increase in union membership in the various tailors’ societies. A number of factors had on this occasion combined to tilt the scales in favour of the workers, including the gradual assimilation and Anglicisation of Jewish workers which was breaking down prejudice and separation, a growing integration in various (previously quite separate) branches of the trade; the fact that it took place in May, always the busy season, when masters were most desperate for workers. The dedicated leadership of Rocker, Kaplan and the Arbeter Fraint group had also been crucial.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

The introduction to this post describing the London tailoring trade is a brief and very simplistic account; if you are interested in reading more on this, Anne J. Kershen’s ‘Uniting The Tailors’ is a brilliant write-up of tailoring and trade unionism in London and Leeds.

Rudolf Rockers account of the 1912 strike is taken from his autobiography, ‘The London Years’.

William J. Fishman’s East End Jewish Radicals is also a mesmerising read on this period.

Today in London radical herstory, 1914: International Womens Day march sees launch of newspaper the Woman’s Dreadnought

“The first part of the procession, which was headed by boys and young men , dressed in a sort of cowboy dress, had just entered the square when Miss Sylvia Pankhurst got off the bus…her arrest was effected as soon as she stepped into the street . and though she endeavoured to force her way into the procession she was hurried away in a taxicab before the main body of the processionalists realised she had been captured. When the fact became known there was a wild rush in the direction taken by the cab, but the police, after a brief tussle, restored order and “The first part of the procession, which was headed by boys and young men , dressed in a sort of cowboy dress, had just entered the square when Miss Sylvia Pankhurst got off the bus…her arrest was effected as soon as she stepped into the street . and though she endeavoured to force her way into the procession she was hurried away in a taxicab before the main body of the processionalists realised she had been captured. When the fact became known there was a wild rush in the direction taken by the cab, but the police, after a brief tussle, restored order and the procession joined the meeting in the square. …Miss Patterson exclaimed, ‘We feel that the time has come for action. Follow the flags. See if we can find something to do’ and proceeded towards Whitehall with strong contingent of men, women and boys …The arrest of Miss Patterson was a signal for wild disorder, many of her supporters throwing themselves on her captors. Eventually mounted police dispersed the crowd. Altogether ten persons were arrested”.  (Manchester Guardian, 9 March 1914, p.9.)

On 8 March 1914 the East London Federation of a Suffragette held an International Women’s Day demonstration in Trafalgar Square, to demand votes for women. The march saw launch of its newspaper, the Women’s Dreadnought.

The march was met by mounted police who waded in to inflict considerable violence on the demonstrators. Five women and five men were brought to court the following day, where an angry magistrate complained “Half Scotland Yard had turned out to keep a lot of desperadoes in order!”


The East London Federation of the Suffragettes (ELFS), had only two months before had formally split from the largest militant suffragette organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which had engineered their expulsion, mistrustful of the ELFS’s emphasis on centring the campaign for the vote among working-class women in London’s East End.

Leading light in the ELFS was socialist suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, whose political divergence from her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel was only past of the story. Sylvia had undertaken hunger strikes in prison to the point that the authorities temporarily released her to ensure she did not die in their custody, and was at constant risk of re-arrest and imprisonment (she was in fact re-arrested again on the 8th March demonstration).

Sylvia Pankhurst would later recall that the WSPU leader (who was also Sylvia’s older sister), Christabel Pankhurst, demanded that the ELFS form a separate organisation on the grounds that

‘a working women’s movement was of no value: working women were the weakest portion of the sex: how could it be otherwise? Their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the contest. ‘Surely it is a mistake to use the weakest for the struggle! We want picked women, the very strongest and most intelligent!’ 

The ELFS completely rejected this view that richer women were more effective suffragettes, publishing an impassioned defence of the necessity of campaigning ‘from below’ in the first edition of the Dreadnought:

‘Some people tell us that it is neither specially important that working women should agitate for the Vote, nor specially important that they should have it. They forget that comparatively, the leisured comfortably situated women are but a little group, and the working-women a multitude.

‘Some people say that the lives of working-women are too hard and their education too small for them to become a powerful force in winning the Vote, many though they are. Such people have forgotten their history. What sort of women were those women who marched to Versailles?

‘Those Suffragists who say that it is the duty of the richer and more fortunate women to win the Vote, and that their poorer sisters need not feel themselves called upon to aid in the struggle appear, in using such arguments, to forget that it is the Vote for which we are fighting. The essential principle of the vote is that each one of us shall have a share of power to help himself or herself and us all. It is in direct opposition to the idea that some few, who are more favoured, shall help and teach and patronise the others’.

The ELFS’s insistence on applying to the struggle the principle of self-representation that they saw embodied in the vote also entailed a rejection of Christabel Pankhurst’s assumption that all women shared the same interests and therefore richer women could fight on behalf of working-class women.

The ELFS had a strong alliance with East End socialists & workers in particular trades, especially the East End dockers. ELFS members had supported dock strikes in 1912, & the organisation continued to work closely with dockers. Many dockers wives became suffragettes. In March 1913, dockers had supported a march to Holloway, where suffragette Scott Troy was on hunger strike; Troy had organised support to help feed 1000s of dockers families during 1912 strike. ELFS had a branch which operated at the East India Dock Gate, the entrance to one of the biggest docks and a well-known speakers corner for trade unions and socialists. Every Sunday in spring & summer the ELFS staged processions that began or ended at the dock gates.

Sylvia Pankhurst speaks

The ELFS also distinguished themselves from the WSPU and other suffrage groups, in that they campaigned for universal adult suffrage – many working men also could not vote. This brought them closer to workers’ organisations, which remained suspicious of the WPSU in some ways.

Although Sylvia Pankhurst was the focus of EFLS activity, other leading women included Charlotte Drake, ex-barmaid, labourers wife & mother of 5; Melvina Walker, a one-time lady’s maid and dockers wife, whose tales of the high society she had served made her a popular speaker; Nellie Cressell mother of 6, who later became Mayor of Poplar; Annie Barnes and Julia Scurr, later councillors in Stepney & Poplar; Jennie MacKay, ex of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), also later a councillor; Louise Somerville, veteran of the Socialist League and Amy Hicks, also ex-SDF.

The 8 March was held to commemorate International Women’s Day, (initially called for at an international socialist conference in Copenhagen in 1910 by the German socialist Clara Zetkin, to draw attention to the struggles of working-class women). Choosing this day for their demonstration highlighted the working-class and internationalist politics that characterised the ELFS.

Melvina Walker

The demonstration was also notable, as it saw the launch of a new publication, the ELFS’s own newspaper, The Woman’s Dreadnought, edited by Sylvia Pankhurst.

The paper was started by Pankhurst at the suggestion of Zelie Emerson, after Pankhurst had been expelled from the Women’s Social and Political Union by her mother and sister.

On the drawing board it was titled Workers’ Mate, but appeared as The Woman’s Dreadnought, with a weekly circulation of anywhere between 10-20,000. It cost a penny; it was advertised by Graffiti campaigns around the East End. Police harassed the women and men who sold it on the streets.

Despite frequent violent re-arrests, imprisonments and hunger strikes, Sylvia Pankhurst ensured the newspaper came out each week; even a policeman arresting her in May 1914 asked her ‘how I found the time for it’. During Sylvia’s regular spells of imprisonment, Norah Smyth alternated as acting editor with Jack O’Sullivan. Smyth used her photography skills to provide pictures for the newspaper of East End life, particularly of women and children living in poverty.

East London Federation of Sufragettes street stall

Until World War 1 began, it covered London-based, mostly East End news: including women’s suffrage, battles with borough councils, fights with police, women’s lives… When WW1 began, it also began to voice opposition to the slaughter, resistance to conscription, and campaigns around the austerity and shortages the war brought. It was viewed by the authorities as having such a dangerous influence that its offices were subject to repeated police raids.

The Dreadnought would go through several incarnations over the next ten years, as the emphasis of the organisation around Sylvia would change and evolve, through suffrage campaigns, resistance to world war and austerity, support for revolution… In July 1917 the name was changed to Workers’ Dreadnought, which initially had a circulation of 10,000. Its slogan changed to “Socialism, Internationalism, Votes for All”, and then in July 1918 to “For International Socialism”, reflecting increasing opposition to Parliamentarism in the party.

Norah Smyth

On 19 June 1920 Workers’ Dreadnought was adopted as the official weekly organ of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). Pankhurst continued publishing the newspaper until 1924.

The first edition of the Dreadnought declared: ‘the chief duty of The Dreadnought will be to deal with the franchise question from the working women’s point of view’. ELFS members, for the most part women who worked in manual jobs, became the Dreadnought’s journalists, reporting on the concerns of their own communities and workplaces which, Sylvia Pankhurst later wrote, ‘produced far truer accounts than any Fleet Street journalist, for they knew what to ask and how to win the confidence of the sufferers.’ One of these members was Florence Buchan, a jam factory worker who had been sacked when her employers found out she was a suffragette, whose first article exposed the dangerous conditions in jam factories. Her interviews with local striking workers conveyed the sacrifices they made, but also their spirit and humour. Women workers at a preserves and tea packing factory told her that when they tried to go on strike the foreman had locked them in the workroom, and when the women told the male workers what had happened they gave the foreman ‘a good thrashing’; the women concluded ‘there are too many bosses’.

Hoping to engage widely with the local community, Sylvia Pankhurst initially wanted the Dreadnought to be free but this proved unaffordable so they charged a halfpenny for it (half the cost of most political publications) in the first four days after printing after which they distributed the remaining copies from the 20,000 print-run house to house around the East End free of charge.

Going door to door also helped the ELFS to in its aim to connect their political campaign with the economic and social issues of the local community. ELFS members would knock on every door in a particular street, ask the women at home about their lives and then report the conversations they had with the women in the Dreadnought, revealing the problems of ordinary people’s lives. In one such report one woman told of the domestic abuse she was habitually subjected to when her husband discovered they had run out of money – ‘they ask you what you’ve done with it all, and then they start on you’, while others spoke of unemployment, hunger and extortionate rents. The ELFS reporter then summarised her political conclusions from the conversations:

‘Denial to the Government which calls these women unoccupied.

‘One came face to face with the unemployed problem.

‘With Poverty. – Housing Question. – Women as Slaves. – Sweating of Women. – Insurance Act as a failure. – Great faith in women. Suffragettes to be found in slums.’

The Dreadnought gained a reputation for amplifying the voices of people that the establishment did not want to hear. The fact that the Dreadnought carried stories which it received from people writing into paper about injustices they wanted publicised demonstrates the trust and credibility the publication had built up.

During World War 1, the East London Federation of Suffragettes opposed the war, (unlike the leading suffrage organisations, the WPSU and the NUWSS). Sylvia insisted on the Fed and the paper taking this view, which did lead to some ‘pro-war’ ELFS activists leaving, and lost the ELFS much support; initially, as the war was popular and opposition considered traitorous. Several well-off backers who had funded the organisation pulled out, outraged at its anti-war stance.

The Mothers’ Arms toy making workshop

However, as the war went on, and deaths mounted, conscription was introduced, and shortages and privations started to it, the ELFS started to regain support. Gradually, the group evolved from a political organisation into a feminist social welfare movement, focusing on the daily needs of East End women. From this they developed political and social demands reflecting the impact the war was having on the poor: for control of food so people wouldn’t go hungry; against rent rises and wage cuts. A rent strike was attempted in August 1914. At this time some East End women were taking direct action – seizing food from shops without paying. At their Bow HQ, a former pub renamed the ‘Mother’s Arms’, the ELFs set up two cost-price restaurants to feed those with little money, and workshops where women could make items to sell to get by.

Cost price eating at the Mothers’ Arms

In the First World War the Dreadnought also exposed the way in which imprisoned Conscientious Objectors were being deported to the warzone in France where, under army jurisdiction, they could be shot. Its front pages reported the dangers of the chemicals women war workers were exposed to in the factories, something that was down-played and denied by their employers. Despite the establishment’s attempts to suppress all information about the mutiny in the British army at the notorious army camp at Étaples in France in late September 1917, the Dreadnought was able to report this news on its front page because a soldier wrote in:

‘The men out here are fed up with the whole b___y lot.

‘About four weeks ago about 10,000 men had a big racket in Etaples, and they cleared the place from one end to the other, and when the General asked what was wrong, they said they wanted the war stopped. That was never in the papers.’

Throughout its existence the Dreadnought sought to represent the most radical section of contemporary social movements. Formed to give expression to the working women’s campaign for the vote, it opposed the First World War from the moment it broke out and in 1914 it became the first English publication to print the anti-war speech of the German socialist Karl Liebknecht.

In June 1917 The Woman’s Dreadnought changed its name to The Workers’ Dreadnought, reflecting the increasing breadth of the campaigns it was taking up. The newspaper championed the Bolshevik Revolution and printed the writings of leading revolutionaries across Europe. In 1920 Sylvia Pankhurst became the first newspaper editor in Britain to employ a black journalist when she invited the Jamaican poet Claude McKay to work on the Dreadnought.

The Dreadnought consistently opposed racism and imperialism and sent its reporters to Ireland to expose atrocities committed by British troops. The paper also (uniquely among the UK left at the time) opposed colonialism, and attacked racism among some East End workers – explicitly linking socialism to anti-racism & anti-colonial struggles. In contrast, other contemporary left papers like the Daily Herald were overtly racist.

Influenced by the Russian Revolution, the ELFS transformed itself into the Workers Socialist Federation, reflecting a change in orientation: towards revolutionary socialism. In a marked change of course from their origins in the suffrage movement, the WSF adopted an anti-parliamentary communist stance, and opposed participation in elections as a bourgeois distraction from the class struggle. They also rejected affiliation to the Labour Party, in contrast to large parts of the Communist scene in the UK (and in contradiction to Lenin’s advice).  The WDF did not forget conflicts with the Labour hierarchy during the war. The Workers’ Dreadnought now advocated soviets and workers control of production, and promoted the forming of workers committees in several London factories; it also flirted with syndicalism/industrial unionism, which was seeing a revival as part of a new post-war upsurge in industrial militancy in 1918-19, which saw a plethora of strikes. Billy Watson, who attempted to set up a London Workers Committee to unite workers’ struggles from below, wrote a regular industrial column for the Dreadnought in 1917.

Pankhurst developed her own theory of ‘social soviets’: councils of working class inside AND outside workplaces, to include people not in work, eg housewives, unemployed, elderly, children… This was an advanced position for a leftist of the times (where the workplace was generally considered the only place for class struggle to take place). He vision was of a local & decentralised form of socialism, under workers’ control. This all reflected Sylvia’s interest in practical problems of how socialism would run on a local level, food, welfare etc – all of which arose from the ELFS practical experience during WW1.

The WSF were the first communist group to make contact with the Bolsheviks after the October 1917 Revolution; over the next few years the group’s relationship to the situation in Russia would in many ways define its trajectory. The WSF affiliated to the communist Third international in 1919. But in the same year, Sylvia Pankhurst went to Italy, Germany, Holland, making contacts with the left fractions of the communist movement, with whose positions she clearly agreed, on elections, parliamentary participation, in particular. This would get the WSF denounced by Lenin in 1920 in his ‘Leftwing Communism: An Infantile Disorder’. While the WSF was heavily involved in struggles in London against the UK plan for military intervention in Soviet Russia, news coming from the USSR increased Sylvia’s distrust of the directions the Soviet revolution was taking. Nevertheless, the WSF reformed (in alliance with Aberdeen, Holt & Croydon Communist groups, Stepney Communist League, Gorton Socialist Society, the Labour Abstentionist Party, & the Manchester Soviet) into the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) in 1920: the first UK Communist Party. Lenin also thought this move premature.

After many raids during the war, the Dreadnought’s spreading of communism was guaranteed to attract more police attention. The Dreadnought offices were raided again under the draconian Defence of the Realm Act, for publication of articles which referred to discontent in the navy: the CP(BSTI) had some contacts among rebel sailors, eg black sailor Reuben Samuels, and Dave Springhall.

Claude Mackay

It was through Jamaican-born Claude Mackay that these contacts had been made. Though later better known as a poet and writer, a crucial figure in the Harlem Renaissance, in 1919-20, McKay was living in London, and had become a communist. He fused communist ideas with anti-colonial and anti-racist thinking, and bridged the black nationalist and socialist scenes, critical of where both fell short from within. As well as writing for the Dreadnought (at times during Sylvia’s imprisonment he virtually edited several issues), he also frequented a mostly black soldiers’ club in Drury Lane, and the International Socialist Club in Shoreditch (successor to the 19th century old Communist Club  A militant atheist, he also joined the Rationalist Press Association. During this period that his commitment to socialism deepened and he read Marx assiduously. At the International Socialist Club, McKay met Shapurji SaklatvalaA. J. CookGuy AldredJack TannerArthur McManusWilliam Gallacher, and George Lansbury. He attended the Communist Unity Conference that established the Communist Party of Great Britain.

In April 1920, the Daily Herald, a socialist paper published by George Lansbury, included a racist article written by E. D. Morel. Entitled “Black Scourge in Europe: Sexual Horror Let Loose by France on the Rhine“, it insinuated gross hypersexuality on black people in general. Lansbury refused to print McKay’s response. This response then appeared in Workers’ Dreadnought. In response to the “Black Horror on the Rhine” stories that the Daily Herald was running, McKay wrote:

“Why this obscene maniacal outburst about the sex vitality of black men in a proletarian paper?” Rape is rape; the colour of the skin doesn’t make it different. Negroes are no more over-sexed than Caucasians; mulatto children in the West Indies and America were not the result of parthenogenesis. If Negro troops had syphilis, they contracted it from the white and yellow races. As for German women, in their economic plight they were selling themselves to anyone. I do not protest because I happen to be a Negro … I write because I feel that the ultimate result of your propaganda will be further strife and blood-spilling between whites and the many members of my race … who have been dumped down on the English docks since the ending of the European war … Bourbons of the United States will thank you, and the proletarian underworld of London will certainly gloat over the scoop of the Christian-Socialist pacifist Daily Herald.”

The Dreadnought office was raided in October 1920, after the paper published the articles about discontent among sailors, and Sylvia Pankhurst was charged under DORA for publishing these articles. Mackay, in a room at the top of the building, was warned by Pankhurst’s secretary, Mackay smuggled the original letters from which they derived out of the building, and burned them. He escaped arrest, but Sylvia was sent to prison for six months in 1921 for publishing them. At her trial she defiantly called for the overthrow of capitalism, telling the court: ‘this is a wrong system, and has got to be smashed.’ 

Mackay left Britain shortly after, feeling things were getting too hot for him. He later spent time in the Soviet Union, though he distanced himself from communism in later life.

The Dreadnought was in the news again only a few weeks later, after a crowd attacked women working there who had disrupted the first November 11th Armistice Day commemorations.

The CP(BSTI) entered into negotiations with other socialist groups to form a united Communist Party, including the British Socialist Party (BSP) – the anti-war majority of the old Social Democratic Federation – and the mainly Scottish-based Socialist Labour Party. Throughout the protracted discussions, the ‘communist left’ attempted to form a left bloc in or allied to any new Communist Party, which many had realised would be dominated by more right wing members of the BSP. The 21 theses laid down by the Communist International caused some debate, as they included stipulations Pankhurst and the left communists had serious issues with. 4 CP(BSTI) branches refused to agree to them & left. Although the majority of the CP(BSTI) did unite with the new Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in January 1921, by this time problems had led to division between Pankhurst & others, and she was in immediate conflict with the new party hierarchy. All CP publications were supposed (under the 21 Theses) to be subordinated to party control, and the Workers’ Dreadnought was not accepted as a party paper; Sylvia was ordered to cease publication. The new party also did little to support her while she was in jail. Though she joined the CPGB on her release, she maintained contact with the European left communists – the KAPD, left factions & the Workers Opposition. She was ordered to give up the Dreadnought, and refusing to do so, was expelled from the CPGB in September 1921.

After her expulsion, Pankhurst & a few others (including Melvina Walker & Nora Smythe) formed a Communist Workers Party (CWP), but this was only ever a small propaganda sect. They attempted to revive their old speaking places and links in the East End but the group never really took off. Sylvia also refused to unite with another left communist grouping in Britain, the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation, mainly due to personality differences…

Sylvia carried on publishing the Dreadnought, and allied herself and the CWP to the Fourth International of left wing communist groups, including the KAPD, & Belgian, Dutch, Bulgarian, Czech left communists (known as International of Opposition Parties). They shared their criticisms of developments in Russia, and built up links also to the Workers Opposition in the USSR.

But being excluded from the CPGB pushed Sylvia and her group to the margins, and movements they had built up were declining or divided. CWP-backed alternatives to the mainstream communist-backed union movements or the National Unemployed Workers Movement were either small and weak or short-lived. Revolutionary Growing more out of touch, the CWP collapsed by 1924. Lack of support, money and energy led Sylvia to halt publication of the Workers’ Dreadnought in July 1924.

Although Sylvia eventually moved out of the East End, she remained active politically, and would go on to be an early campaigner against the rise of fascism, as well as outspokenly fighting for international solidarity with Ethiopia when it was invaded by fascist Italy. She died in Ethiopia in 1960. The ELFS and its successors had done some amazing work in the East End, from agitating among working class women and men over the vote, through grassroots day to day solidarity in the face of war and repression, resisting the war effort, supporting revolution and correctly criticising the USSR’s turn to authoritarianism and the western communist parties’ slavish falling into line and opportunism. Like many another suffragette, her health was irrevocably damaged by hunger strikes in prison; but she never stopped trying to change the world for the better…

Read Copies of the Women’s/Workers’ Dreadnought in the British Newspaper Archive

Worth a read: Sylvia’s accounts of her activism, in The Suffragette Movement, and The Home Front (about the ELFS in WW1).
Also Barbara Wilmslow, Sylvia Pankhurst, a good account of the various phases of Sylvia’s political journey.

Today and tomorrow, in London’s shopping history: bread riots in Whitechapel, 1861

The winter of 1860-61 was grim: freezing weather and lack of work, leading to mass poverty among working people in London. ‘The district of Old Street, Goswell Street, Barbican, and Whitecross Street’, wrote a correspondent of the Morning Post on January 20, 1861, ‘are the boundaries, in a maze of courts swarming with people in a state of starvation.’

The low temperatures led to a lack of work: “Owing to the continuance of the frost, and all out door labour being stopped, the distress and suffering that prevail in the metropolis, particularly among the dock labourers, bricklayers, masons, and labouring classes at the East End, are truly horrible. Throughout the day thousands congregate round the approaches of the different workhouses and unions, seeking relief, but it has been impossible for the officers to supply one-third that applied. This led to consider able dissatisfaction, and hundreds have perambulated the different streets seeking alms of the inhabitants and of the passers-by.” (Morning Star, January 18, 1861)

“THE one domestic question at present uppermost in the public mind is the social condition of the humbler classes. It has been forced upon us by a winter of unexampled severity; by an amount of national distress, not at all exceptional in the cold season, which has gone to the very verge of bread riots; and by agitations in the press and on the platform for an immediate improvement in labourers’ cottages. The chief streets of the metropolis have been haunted for weeks by gaunt labourers, who have moaned out a song of want that has penetrated the thickest walls. The workhouses have been daily besieged by noisy and half-famished crowds; the clumsy poor-law system, with its twenty-three thousand officers, its boards, and its twelve thousand annual reports, has notoriously broken down; the working clergy, and the London magistrates, worn out and exhausted, have been the willing almoners of stray benevolence; Dorcas societies, soup-kitchens, ragged-schools, asylums, refuges, and all the varied machinery of British charity, have been strained to the utmost; and now we may sit down and congratulate ourselves that only a few of our fellow-creatures have been starved to death. The storm to all appearance has passed, but the really poor will feel the effects of those two bitter months -December, 1860, and January, 1861 – for years.” (Ragged London in 1861, John Hollingshead, 1861.)

The extreme poverty provoked collective action – proletarian shopping – taking the necessities of life by force without the politeness of paying. Over the nights of 15/16 January 1861, there were bread riots in Whitechapel.
Several bakers’ shops in the East End of London were emptied by a mob of 30 to 40 people on the evening of the 15th. The next day, things escalated: on the 16th, between seven and nine o’clock at night, thousands gathered, many of them dockers and their families, and cleared bakers’ shops and eating-houses. Outnumbered, the mounted police were powerless to stop the desperate spectacle.

“On Tuesday night much alarm was produced by an attack made on a large number of bakers’ shops in the vicinity of the Whitechapel Road and Commercial Road East. They were surrounded by a mob of about thirty or forty in number, who cleared the shops of the bread they contained, and then decamped. On Wednesday night, however, affairs assumed a more threatening character, and acts of violence were committed. By sonic means it became known, in the course of the afternoon, that the dock labourers intended to visit Whitechapel in a mass, as soon as dusk set in, and that an attack would be made on all the provision shops in that locality. This led to a general shutting up of the shops almost through out the East End – a precaution highly necessary, for between seven and nine o’clock thousands congregated in the principal streets and proceeded in a body from street to street. An attack was made upon many of the bakers’ shops and eating-houses, and every morsel of food was carried away. A great many thieves and dissipated characters mingled with the mob, and many serious acts of violence were committed. The mounted police of the district were present, but it was impossible for them to act against so large a number of people. Yesterday, the streets were thronged with groups of the unemployed, seeking relief of the passers-by. In the outskirts similar scenes were observed, and in some instances acts approaching intimidation were resorted to to obtain alms.” (Morning Star, January 18, 1861)

The bread riot was a not irregular feature of life both before and after industrialisation in England, with bread prices at the mercy of many factors including bad harvests, greedy price-raising by hoarders and artificial price-hiking in the interests of landowners by use of legislation like the Corn Laws. Although these laws had been repealed in 1846, economic slump or seasonal conditions could reduce whole areas to near-destitution. There had been bread riots across London in 1855, including in Whitechapel…

In the January 1861 riots, East End dockers were prominent: dock work was precarious and unstable at the best of times, with men engaged day to day at the whim of the gangmasters; frozen weather caused ships not to be able to be unloaded and work to slacken.

The grim conditions continued into February and March: “It is doubtful if there was not more real privation in February than in January of the present year; and the registrar-general’s return of deaths from starvation – the most awful of all deaths – for the mild week ending February 16, had certainly increased. There has been no lack of generosity on the part of those who have been able to give. The full purse has been everywhere found open, and thousands have asked to be shown real suffering, and the best mode of relieving it. A local taxation, cheerfully and regularly paid, of 18,000,000l. per annum, beyond the Government burden, is either inadequate for the purposes to which it is applied, or applied in the most wasteful and unskilful manner. The sum, or its administration, is unable to do its work. The metropolis, not to speak of other towns, is not “managed,” not cleansed, not relieved from the spectre of starvation which dances before us at our doors.”

(Ragged London in 1861, John Hollingshead, 1861)

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

Check out the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar online

The Silvertown Tunnel can be prevented – like the East London River Crossing back in the 1990s

Climate Change – the most pressing issue of our times; Global crisis that demands global solutions. Declarations of a climate emergency by councils or governments are all very well – but the profits of big business depend on continuing destruction of the natural world and exploitation of its resources, as well as mass exploitation of people. A global solution can only be based on LOCAL action, local change, from the grassroots.

In East London, locals are opposing the planned building of a new Thames river crossing which will increase pollution, congestion and emissions. Transport for London proposes to build the Silvertown Tunnel road tunnel under the Thames, from the Greenwich Peninsula to the Royal Docks, under the river, just to the east of the A102/Blackwall Tunnel.

TfL say East London needs a new river crossing to relieve the over-congested Blackwall Tunnel. But building new roads only attracts new traffic, resulting in higher emissions and more pollution. The building of the second Blackwall Tunnel in the late 1960s saw traffic double within a year – its new approach roads were jammed within a decade. The M25 keeps filling up each time it’s widened. The Silvertown Tunnel would be no different.

It’s true that the Blackwall tunnels are regularly rammed and even shut due to congestion, with queues of vehicles backed up as far as the Sun in the Sands roundabout in the morning… And halfway up to Leyton in the evening… But adding more lanes only opens up for more traffic…

Air quality around the A102 and its approach roads on both sides of the Thames already breaks legal limits, putting locals’ health at risk, especially children. The effects of poor air contributes to the deaths of hundreds of local people; children who grow up near polluted roads have their lungs damaged for life. The solution to transport problems is better public transport, not more roads and more cars.

At best, the Silvertown Tunnel will be an expensive waste of money. At worst, it’ll blight the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

But it doesn’t have to be this way: local people have prevented such disastrous roads being built before. The A102 itself is a legacy from the failed London Ringway proposal, a plan to encircle London with urban motorways – fought off in the 1970s by angry residents. [Interestingly for those as remember the 1996 Reclaim the Streets party on the motorway – the M41 in Shepherds Bush, squatted for this event, is the only other part of the Ringway apart from the A102 that ever actually got built…]

And just downriver from where the Silvertown Tunnel is proposed today, the East London River Crossing was defeated in the 1990s.

Originally scheduled in the 1980s, the River Crossing faced opposition from the start. It faced the longest Public Inquiry ever held into a road scheme; an inquiry 194 days; the transcripts of the proceedings contained 9.5 million words!

Planned to run across the river from Beckton through Greenwich and Eltham, to link the A2 and A13, plans for the new road would have meant bulldozing through some beautiful southeast London woodlands, including the 8000 year-old Oxleas wood, and Shepherdleas wood, Woodlands Farm, and demolishing several hundred homes in Plumstead. Government policy at the time involved a massive new roadbuilding program – developers and some local authorities strongly supported the scheme.

In the words of one of the organisers against the scheme,the odds against stopping it were getting bigger all the time. To achieve victory, a concerted strategy was needed to make Oxleas Wood a big issue locally and give it wider significance – a strategy to make it a symbol of the environmental damage that the road programme was causing and a rallying point for the environment movement. If that could be done, then, given Oxleas Wood’s proximity to Westminster, it might force the Government to back down rather than risk confrontation with a united community and environment movement, in its own “back yard”.

As ancient woodland Oxleas Woods had survived in all its beauty and peace for over 8000 years and now, in the space of a year or so, it was to be decimated in the name of progress. 900 year-old trees and a vast array of rare flora and fauna were to be destroyed to provide drivers with a faster route between the City of London, East and South East London.

Many hundreds of years previously the 77 hectare site had been gifted to the citizens of London as a leisure area “to enjoy for perpetuity”. Oxleas was one of the capital city’s last remaining sizeable green spaces and in some respects acted as the lungs of London. It has been described as “the last remaining part of the pre-historic great forest of London”. People from all walks of life benefited from Oxleas – playing children, nature lovers, hikers and dog-walking adults, from the poorest communities in London in enormous social housing estates in Kidbrooke to the middle classes of Eltham and Shooters Hill.

‘Like all the best campaigns we fought on every level. There were letter-writing stalls at the popular Greenwich market, politicians were systematically lobbied and a well-presented public transport alternative was drawn-up. We organised an “Adopt-a- Tree” scheme; the aim here was to get every tree in Oxleas Wood adopted. As well as bringing in funds and publicity, it would give supporters a real stake in the campaign. And if the worst came to the worst we could invite tree adopters to turn up to defend their tree.

In order to make Oxleas a “line in the sand” for the environment movement, we got some of the large environmental non-government organisations (for example the Wildlife Trusts and World Wide Fund for Nature) to take part in an Oxleas Strategy Group. This helped lock them into a campaign that was ultimately run by local people, but which made the best use of the resources of the national campaigns.

A couple of legal lines of last resort helped propel the campaign into the national news. The Government had failed to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment for the scheme, as required by European Community law. The heroic European Commissioner for the Environment, Carlo Ripa di Meana, took up this complaint causing Prime Minister Major to hit the roof and interrupt a Commonwealth conference to condemn the EC’s action. The complaint was never seen through by the EC, but the publicity was invaluable, as was that which resulted from a High Court case where the “Oxleas 9” (nine local people) put their assets on the line to take the Department of Transport to court over their failure to provide adequate land in exchange for the damage to Oxleas woods. The case was lost, but Oxleas had caught the public imagination and the pressure on the government was intensifying.

Meanwhile, campaigners were preparing for the worst. A “Beat the Bulldozer” pledge was launched, with the aim of getting 10,000 people to pledge to be there if the bulldozers went in. With the TV pictures of direct action at Twyford Down fresh in their minds, as well as the vivid pictures we had painted of what would happen if they violated Oxleas Wood, the Government backed down.”

In the end, the pressure of the campaign paid off. In July 1993, the government withdrew the plans. The River Crossing was abandoned, unbuilt.’

The East London River Crossing was a turning point: part of, and helping to inspire, a growing movement against the government’s road building program. Community campaigns, protest camps, occupations and sabotage resisted roadbuilding at Twyford Down, against the M11, at Newbury, among many others. Mass resistance led to the whole roads program being cancelled by the New Labour government in 1997. Acting together – WE CAN WIN.

Check out the Stop Silvertown Tunnel Coalition on twitter: @SilvertownTn

More info on Silvertown Tunnel campaign: https://silvertowntunnel.co.uk/

Pagans and magick folk played a significant part in the fight against the East London River Crossing in the 1990s – check out this account

What was really great to see was the local Extinction Rebellion action against the proposed Silvertown tunnel this year. There have been many criticism of XR (our post on Reclaim the Streets, XR and more here has some thoughts) – but this was practical and pressing action, addressing the burning issues on the ground and in daily life… A good step forward.

The Silvertown Tunnel has now been approved for go ahead… But this does not mean the struggle is over! The story of the East London River Crossing and the Saving of Oxleas Wood shows the show ain’t over if we get our act together…

Today in London secessionist history, 1970: ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence’ on the Isle of Dogs

What with all this Brexit stuff going on… Seems likely at some point that different parts of this so-called nation will be moving in different directions… We started thinking about unilateral declarations of independence… At least two we know of took place in London (neither of them being in Pimlico!) – on the Isle of Dogs in 1970 and ‘Frestonia’, the squatted section of Latimer Road, North Kensington, in 1977… we’ll come back to the latter later in the year…

On 1st March 1970, some residents of the Isle of Dogs, in East London’s docklands, blockaded the roads that led onto the Island, and announced a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Although theoretically inspired by the UDI not long before declared by the racist regime in white Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the isle of Dogs UDI was not a racist move – it was sparked by poverty, resentment at the lack of resources and infrastructure on the Island, and was seen as a propaganda action, to highlight the Islanders’ problems.

The anger and the resulting community organising that produced the ‘UDI’ had been developing since the war. Massive destruction of both industry and housing in the East End by German bombing during World War 2 left hundreds of thousands without housing; much of what remained was ageing, in poor condition, and overcrowded. Many East Enders were still living in homes that had been unfit to live in during Victorian times.

A major programme of house building was initiated, centred in cheaply and speedily built estates, which would rapidly transform the East End; large numbers of people were transplanted, both further out to the edges of East London, and within the East End itself. New estates were built on the Isle of Dogs; Eastenders were moved here from other areas, themselves being rebuilt.

But although ‘the Island’ in the late 1960s was busy with tens of thousands of men working in the docks and in factories along the river, sailors of all races in the pubs or streets – there was little else for the residents. Pubs – yes. But no secondary school, few shops, poor health care facilities… Long before the Limehouse Link and the DLR were built, it was separated by water and the docks: public transport was a single bus route to get you on and off the Island. What few amenities that existed were being put under increasing strain, as thousands of families from other parts of the newly created borough of Tower Hamlets, were moved into newly-built housing estates on the Island. Largely cut off from the rest of the borough, many on the Isle of Dogs felt ignored or forgotten. Every election, the Island dutifully returned its six Labour members to the Poplar Borough Council: members who, in the view of many Islanders, quickly forgot about their constituents as they were sucked into the Labour machine, bowing to the party, and taking their constituents for granted. Whip. Locals began to call the district ‘the forgotten Island’.

This began under the auspices of the old Borough of Poplar, but would worsen after the reorganisation of London’s boroughs in 1965, when Poplar and the island were merged in to the new larger borough of Tower Hamlets.

This feeling of abandonment and simmering anger boiled over in January 1959, when the Port of London Authority (PLA) decided to close the footbridge over Millwall Docks. The bridge had supposedly been erected as a temporary replacement for the road bridge destroyed in the war, and provided the quickest way to get between Cubitt Town and Millwall. Closing the bridge would’ve added a mile on the journey from home to work, forking out for extra bus fares… Islanders felt that they were being ignored … again.

The Bridge plan sparked the birth of a campaign: a 2000-name petition was collected, and the Millwall Residents’ Association (MRA) was formed, soon attracting hundreds of members. They managed to force the PLA to back down, but only the bridge was replaced by a raisable walkway (though the long-promised road link was not rebuilt). Poplar Council were accused of backing off from criticising the Port of London Authority.

When in 1960, the PLA and Poplar officials held a meeting presenting the proposal for the new walkway, 300 Islanders turned up to barracked them. One resident demanded ‘that for once the Councils show some guts’. Throughout 1960, Islanders packed the galleries at Council meetings, urging their councillors to ‘speak up for the residents’.

Enraged at the council’s vacillations over the Battle of the Bridge, at the next Council elections in 1962, an Island Tenants Association (ITA) contested and won all three seats, overturning Labour dominance on the Island.

Even when Labour won back the council seats, one of the councillors was to be a thorn in their side. This was Ted Johns, who had worked as a timber porter and wharf manager, and who was to one of the architects of the ‘UDI’.

Born in Poplar, Johns had only moved to the Island in the mid-1950s, when his previous home in the Bow Triangle was redeveloped out of existence. He inherited a radical family tradition: an ancestor had been notable in the Chartist movement, later family members had been active in the great Dockers’ Strike of 1889, and his father had fought against fascist Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Johns himself had been a national leader in the League of Labour Youth, and had helped found several campaigning Island groups.

Active in local politics, in 1965 Johns became a Labour councillor on Tower Hamlets Borough Council. However, he was frequently at odds with his own party:

“I was never popular on the Tower Hamlets council. I was always criticising. The local government had become complacent.”

Johns pressed for development and planning decisions that would preserve and enhance the quality of communal life for Island residents. He opposed additional housing estates, demanded preference for local residents when it came to new houses, and fought middle-class housing developments.  In the face of the clearly declining docks he proposed programmes to attract and retain industry.

When In the late 1960s, the Labour Council put up council rents, after having promised not to do so, Johns went on a personal rent-strike and his own council served an eviction order on him. For this he was also expelled from the Party.

Around this time, Ted met John Westfallen, a lighterman, who was living on the newly-built Samuda Estate, and had become involved in the estate’s tenants association. They became friends, and allies in the fight for improvements. Westfallen’s practical ability to get things done complemented Johns’ rebellious spirit.

From this friendship came the plan to block the bridge and the ‘declaration of independence’.

For two hours on 1st March 1970, they blocked West Ferry Rd on the west side of the Island, and the ‘Blue Bridge’ (the road bridge over the entrance to the West India Docks) on the east side. Not only did this make it impossible for road traffic to leave or enter the Island, at least one ship – the Swedish cargo ship Ursa – could not enter the docks to be unloaded because the Blue Bridge could not be raised. Despite repeated demands from the police, the barrier yielded just once … to let a hospital-bound vehicle through.

They called for better roads, more buses, better shops and a cut in rates. They announced to the press:

We have declared UDI and intend to set up our own council. We can govern ourselves much better than they seem to be doing. They have let the island go to the dogs.

John Westfallen, a fan of the Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico (his in-laws had acted in the film), thought up some attention-grabbing elements to the action – he created and distributed ‘entry permits’ and joked about having proper Island passports. A second “Prime Minister”, stevedore Ray Paget of West Ferry Rd, manned the barricades on the west side of the Island.

A few days later, the activists set up a 30-strong ‘Citizen’s Council of the Isle of Dogs’ which met at the tenants’ hall on the Barkentine Estate. They demanded rent cuts, better transport, more schools and the election of the Island to borough status. The Citizens council threatened to withhold rates from Tower Hamlets Borough Council and the GLC and spend it for the specific benefit of the Island. ‘Chairman Johns’ fired off a warning letter to Prime Minister Harold Wilson and MP Anthony Greenwood (Minister for Housing and Local Government).

The Declaration was never meant to be serious – it was a publicity stunt, meant to grab attention for the neglect the islanders complained of. It certainly did that – the press jumped at the story.

“It …catapulted the Isle of Dogs on to the front pages of the national press and elevated Johns to the status of ‘president’. Indeed, the foreign media, flocking to his council flat…and treated him as if he were the head of state of a small independent nation.” Johns later claimed he had never really called himself President: “Actually, I never called myself the President, I think someone made that up. It was all a bit of a joke.”

Ted Johns was a natural showman, comfortable in front of the TV camera, able to push the buttons that would get the press going…  Though he joked during one of his many news conferences that he also had to pay attention to more mundane matters:

“There is a danger that I might get the sack as I have been off work all week to deal with the situation.”

On 3rd March, Ted Johns was even briefly interviewed via satellite link by famous US CBS reporter Walter Cronkite, as “President of the Republic of the Isle of Dogs”.

However, not everyone locally supported the actions of the ‘provisional government’.

Local shopkeeper David Jordan denounced Johns’ “dictatorship” and said he was getting 400 signatures an hour on an anti-UDI petition. A group of demonstrators collected signatures outside the Skeggs House flat where Johns had set up his ‘government’, with one protester declaring “he’s got no right to do it” and another “it’s just plain stupid”.  There were surreal moments, one woman signed the anti-UDI petition, sighing with whimsical regret “I thought I was going to be a queen.”.

Ted Johns put this division about the protest down to differences between the longer-established Islanders and the more recent incomers:

“It was a difference between the old and new Island East Enders,’ he argued later. ‘The old Islanders were secure in their little cocoon. Those of us that came in realised we were facing a great danger because we could see our roots had gone. We were really fighting to ensure the new roots we set down here became permanent.”

The protest was followed by a few others, Ted Johns and John Westfallen also met with Harold Wilson at 10 Downing St. The wave of publicity finally needled Tower Hamlets Council into announcing some investment and improvements on the Island, they they naturally claimed they had planned to do this all along, and that the UDI protest had nothing to do with it. Unsurprisingly the Island never got separate borough status, but things did start to change. Tower Hamlets Council announced a series of new housing projects for the Island; ILEA unveiled plans for new schools; and London Transport set to improving bus routes.

John Westfallen, who also spent many years providing facilities and clubs for Island kids, died unexpectedly in 1975. Ted Johns remained actively involved in local politics and community initiatives until his death in 2004.

However, worse was to come for the Islanders, in many ways of course. While the community struggles recounted above were taking place, the docks, at the centre of the working lives of most of the residents, were themselves in decline. Most of the docks closed in the 1970s. The dereliction this brought to the Island opened up opportunities for the developments of the 1980s, the glossy corporate take-over of Canary Wharf, the yuppie flats… Most of which offered nothing but an alien colonialism to the people already living there.

Ironically, John Westfallen’s son Tony has suggested that the UDI protest actually sparked this turn of events:

It is necessary to understand the importance of this meeting in concern to the whole of London. The importance comes from the fact that it was during this meeting, that the plans for the redevelopment of this area were hatched, this meeting was the “catalyst” for the development of what is now known as Canary Wharf.

The arguments put forward by John and Ted at this meeting were so well presented and thought through, that after the meeting Wilson discussed them with Lord Vestey, along with his friends at Taylor Woodrow, who – as we know now – planned the closing of the docks and started to invest millions.

Sadly, little of this investment was seen until after Johns’ death … the vast majority of government funded projects got buried in Whitehall government offices, or at the GLC, others became hijacked by local politicians, who made a lot of noise, but actually sold-out to their political masters.

But islanders would also resist the imposition of the new corporate Docklands…

Much of this post was shamelessly stolen from

The ‘Island History’ Blog

and East End History

There’s a news clip of some local reaction to the UDI – not all of it in favour…!

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Neglect and deprivation would also play a part in another area of London which declared independence in the 1970s – Frestonia. To which we will return later in the year…

Today in London transport history: Workers on DLR go on two day strike, 2015

 On 3rd November 2015, workers on Docklands Light Railways (DLR) in London began a 48-hour strike, the first strike at the DLR to fully shut down its rail services since its inception in 1987. The strike began at 03:58 a.m., ending exactly two days later.

The work stoppage was called by the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, with members voting 92 percent ballot in favour. The union had an ongoing dispute is with the current DLR franchise owner, KeolisAmey Docklands (KAD), who inherited the franchise from Serco in December 2014. Their winning of the tender had been based on proposals of further cost-cutting, which Serco had themselves already prided themselves on.

RMT members on the DLR were furious at the way that KeolisAmey were trying to force through “some of the worst working practices and conditions associated with the operations of the most cheapskate and anti-union companies in the transport sector.”

KAD was making use of lower-paid contract workers to partly run the DLR lines, in order to undermine existing working conditions. Keolis is a global corporation running transportation networks in cities across the world.

The strike disrupted the whole DLR network from Lewisham to Poplar to Canary Wharf.

In the UK, Keolis owns 35 percent of Govia, which operates the Govia Thameslink Railway, Southern, Southeastern and London Midland franchises and has a 45 percent shareholding in First TransPennine Express—delivering one-in-three rail journeys in the UK. Amey is one of the UK’s leading public service providers.

Keolis has a history of slashing costs by sub-tendering jobs to its own contractors. In Boston, in the United States, for example, Keolis won a contract for commuter rail services by promising cost savings over the then-current operator. The current operator was a joint venture of which Keolis is a member.

The history of the DLR is one of a series of franchises run by various contractors with the collaboration of the trade unions, the RMT in particular.

The DLR is theoretically a subsidiary of TfL. Although TfL is one commercial body, workers employed by it are divided by a myriad of subsidiaries and sub-contractors. All trade unions at TfL are “stakeholders” and in this way share in the exploitation of their own members. Since its beginnings, the DLR always employed a multi-tiered workforce on different terms and conditions. KAD is entitled as per franchise agreement to employ contract workers on different terms and conditions than those currently employed. The franchise agreement is well known to all stakeholders, including the trade unions.

Ironically, the DLR was designed and built to avoid strikes, overseen by Thatcherite minsters determined to crush organised workers on public transport, as well as planning the massive regeneration of the London docklands area, and wanting it to be a shiny new ‘forward-looking’ (individualist paradise…) At the beginning in ran only on working days in working hours – locals who lived in the area it were quick to suss that it wasn’t designed for the likes of them that lived there (and that the whole regeneration project including the DLR was intended to replace and remove them…)

The DLR was initially constructed for £77 million: the Department of Transport had to be convinced to contribute half by Michael Heseltine, Environment Secretary, who had put up the other half with the idea that it would assist with the Docklands regeneration. Derided as a “toy town” railway to nowhere, the DLR was subsequently repeatedly upgraded as Canary Wharf emerged and required much greater capacity.

Nicholas Ridley, the arch-Thatcherite Transport Secretary, had a great influence on its creation. Designed and built entirely by the private sector in order to keep it out of the hands of Ken Livingstone’s left-wing Greater London Council, engineers and planners who worked on the DLR recall being told that making the trains driverless, and thus invulnerable to union disruption, was an essential requirement. That worked well then.

One consultant who worked on the project recalls that powering the DLR via overhead cables was ruled out by the Thatcher government, who told him with some disgust that: “This must not look like a bloody tram! Trams come from socialist countries. We are not a socialist country!”

Disputes on the Line continue… In April 2018 another planned four day strike  of RMT members over the “fundamental issues” of workplace justice, fairness and the outsourcing of key functions was suspended pending further talks…

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London radical history: More than 300,000 London workers are on strike, 1889.

“The proverbial small spark has kindled a great fire which threatens to envelop the whole metropolis.” (The Evening News, 27th August 1889)

The seminal strike of the London dockers in 1889 began on 14th August, as thousands slaving in one of the hardest, most insecure and worst paid job in London refused to work until wages were raised, minimum hours guaranteed, and other conditions improved. Within a few days the port of London was a standstill. There was widespread sympathy for the dockers, but money for strike pay was scarce. But a strong campaign of processions into the City, calls for support going out nationally and internationally, and effective picketing and blocking of scabbing, kept the struggle powerful.

The dockers’ strike may itself have been partly inspired by the 1888 matchgirls’ strike and the agitation of the East End gas stokers for better wages and conditions… But the outbreak of the strike itself lit a fuse among London workers, especially the low paid and casually employed.

A rash of strikes and disputes broke out in the second half of August and early September 1889; concentrated in (though not limited to) East London. In a rough triangle between the City, Kings Cross and Blackwall, there were at least 50 strikes outside of the docks. In South and west London there were at least another 16.

A newspaper report listed some of the trades that had come out: “…coal men, match girls, parcels postmen, carmen [cartdrivers], rag, bone and paper porters and pickers and the employees in jam, biscuit, rope, iron, screw, clothing and railways works…” Not included here is the large-scale strike of Jewish tailors in the East End in August-September. It has been suggested that 300,000 workers in London were out on strike on September 1st 1889, a huge number, which may even be an under-estimate.

There was also a rent strike in Commercial Road in Stepney: a banner in Hungerford Street announced “As We are on strike landlords need not call”, following it with a rhyme:
Our husbands on strike: for the wives it is not funny
And we all think it is not right to pay the landlord money
Everyone is on strike; so landlords do not be offended
The rent that’s due we’ll pay when the strike is ended.

The spreading of the strike into social struggle in this way was hardly surprising in East London, where workers often lived close to their work, in close proximity to others who worked with them, and in dire poverty. Solidarity was a necessity. Many of the workers erupting were largely unskilled or semi-skilled, like the matchgirls and dockers, traditionally ignored by the craft unions of the skilled workers who had achieved relatively good wages and conditions and a position in society. This wave of ‘new unionism’ as it became known was spreading practical and committed trade union organization among those who the ‘aristocracy of labour’ had long considered feckless and not capable of collective bargaining. But is was also confrontational, where many of the craft unions had long settled into a collaborative relationship with employers. The status quo was threatened in more ways than one.

The whole of working class London was in ferment. The spreading of the strike to other trades began to worry the establishment – how many other industries would follow suit? A committee of the great and the good was formed to try to get the dock strike settled before things got too out of hand. The intransigent employers were to some extent leant upon to give concessions in order to lessen the pressure on London’s economy being jacked up as strike after strike broke out.

The bourgeois press of course was largely scathing of the strikes; the language used is interesting, as in several reports the spreading of strike action is likened to disease. “Strike Fever”… “the infectious example of coming out on strike”… “the infection has spread to other classes of laboring men…” Workers attempting to collectively push for a rise on wages to levels they can survive on and conditions bearable to work under are basically a plague, a pox, a sickness. It’s obvious really.

But if the employers were nervous and the press jumpy, the leaders of the dockers’ strike were also unnerved by the strike wave that their dispute had to some extent unleashed.

The Strike Committee’s response to the wildfire of class struggle had not been exactly joy… Far from it. To some extent they saw it as a distraction, likely to reduce donations for their own struggle, and as threatening the public sympathy the dock strike had garnered; they also disapproved of strikers simply walking out without organising in a union first. This they justified by suggesting that unionisation was essential for winning any dispute.

They issued a statement in late August: “We, the undersigned, strongly deprecate the rash action taken by unorganised workmen not directly connected with dock work of coming out on strike without reflecting that by doing so they are increasing the strain upon the upon the strike committee’s resources. Organisation must precede strikes, or defeat is certain.”

To some extent the committee’s view reflected a rigid approach that wasn’t taking account of the strength of enthusiasm spreading through the city. Rather than struggle growing from organisation, organisation was growing from struggle, all around them.

The statement seems to have created an intense debate, among the strike organisers and leaders, because on two days later, they took a step that directly contradicted the spirit of it. On 28th August the dock strike committee voted to issue a call for a general strike in London – not only recognising the strength of the widening strike wave, but arguing by implication that its extension would achieve a victory for the dockers.

It can only be imagined what might have then developed. Perhaps the wave had already reached its peak; but perhaps it might have lit a fuse that could not be put out.

In the end it is speculation, as less than a day later, before the call had in fact really been made, the committee reversed the general strike call. Some socialists and anarchists later denounced the decision as betraying a potential revolutionary situation… It has also been suggested that the call for a general strike was itself a last desperate throw, with the strike committee afraid that the dock strike was on the verge of collapsing; that it was calling for something that could not happen, a bluff that could only be called.

Whatever the truth of it, withdrawing the call did not abate the spread of organization through the unskilled workers of London, though it may have signaled to the dock owners and employers in general that the committee were willing to deal with disputes on an individual level, rather than escalate to an all-out class war. In this sense it may have hastened the settlement of the dock strike a few days later, with the wining of a wage rise. Unionisation continued to spread among the unskilled, though there were many battles to come, and victories were often followed by the clawing back of concessions.

The last few days of August and early September 1889 though, remain a time evocative and compelling, when both spontaneous activity and organization were growing, when possibilities seemed open…

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Today in London’s radical history: veteran East End dissident communist Joe Jacobs dies, 1977.

Joe Jacobs was born in 1913 in the East End of London. He lived and worked in London and was involved in socialist organizations his entire life. Joe was a member of the Young Communist League, before he joined the adult party from which he was expelled not once but twice. He was later one of those who helped to found the libertarian socialist organization Solidarity, and after being expelled from that, was a founder of the network Echanges et Mouvement in 1975.

Born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in 1913 Joe endured terrible poverty and personal hardships while growing up. His father died a year after he was born and the family was constantly short of money. When Joe was 12, he lost an eye due to a medical problem. An elder sister was lost to TB in squalid circumstances and other family members lived in equally dire circumstances.

Joe developed a fierce class politics, not surprisingly. Through his father’s first wife, Joe had an elder brother, Dave, who he never met, who returned to Russia to take part in the Revolution. Dave had been a Bolshevik supporter, but later joined the “Workers Opposition” and eventually left Russia to live in Paris. Joe’s own introduction to politics came in 1925 when he was 12 and stumbled across a demonstration in support of the Jewish Bakers’ Union; he was also “profoundly affected” by the General Strike in 1926, especially after witnessing mounted police attacking a crowd with sticks.

Coming into contact with the Communist Party, Joe joined the Young Communist League, and later the adult party. It was to become the centre of his life. In his autobiography Out of the Ghetto, he vividly describes the tremendous variety of activities and organizations in which the Communist Party was involved.

But Joe was often considered a trouble maker in his branch. Throughout the latter part of the book, he paints a picture of the struggle in the branch between those who wanted to work through the trade unions and those who looked to alternative organizations and street work to advance the party’s message, each brandishing Marx and Lenin to support their positions. Joe was a supporter of the latter group and was labelled an ultra-leftist by his colleagues.

No account of life in the East End in the 30’s would be complete without a mention of the “Battle of Cable Street.” The announcement by Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists that they would march through Cable Street on Sunday, October 3 and the efforts to prevent it have become the stuff of (C P) legend. The Fascist movement in Britain, while it never gained the influence that it achieved in continental Europe was certainly growing. Mosley’s march was a provocation. Yet, despite the wave of popular indignation, and later CP accounts, the Communist Party initially decided to press on with their already announced demonstration for solidarity with Spain at Trafalgar Square on the same day. Joe was part of a faction that opposed this decision and fought for a more robust street based response to fascism. A letter from a CP leader to Joe stated that if “Mosley decides to march let him.” Organizing around the slogan ‘They Shall not Pass’ was deemed to be a stunt! When it became evident that the people of the East End were going to resist Mosley whatever the CP’s position the party switched gears. Mosley never got to Cable Street. The Metropolitan police, watching the massive display of force and resistance called off the demonstration and Mosley was forced away. Joe rightly commented that it was a defeat for Mosley courtesy of “Jews and Gentile alike.”

But Joe’s opposition to the party line eventually got him expelled from the party, a little over a year after the events of Cable Street. He did war service and did a spell in the nick after a clash with an officer. After returning to his work in the clothing trade, Joe was as active as ever in the workplace and led a strike/occupation at a factory in Warren Street .

In 1951 he rejoined the party and although welcomed with open arms, he fell out again with the Party, too much thinking for himself, and was expelled again within a year.

Joe had always been critical of the CPGB policy of concentration of the official trade union structure , favouring building up the working class organisation at the workplace. Eventually he left manufacturing and began work at the Post Office at Mount Pleasant. After brief contact with trotskyists he also turned to a more radical alternative, libertarian marxism.

Joe Jacob’s life was important for two reasons. The first was that he was one of the best examples of a political working class activist who associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain at its peak. Yet within a few years, the CPGB had lost the leadership of many of this group and in Joe’s case had expelled him twice.

Secondly Joe did not just hide himself away and pack in political activity but joined what was by far the best example of a libertarian marxist group, Solidarity , sometimes called Solidarity-for-workers-power. He participated in full and worked in both an industrial and political context – he was an ace reporter and writer.

He was a very diligent writer about the important Post Office workers strike in 1971, as he had just retired from employment at the PO. Next he was prominent in the dispute with Big Flame over the 1972 Fisher-Bendix strike and that organisation was forced to back down. Joe also wrote for the monthly journal doing reviews and suchlike.

Joe was increasingly involved in international contacts. He had lost friends as volunteers in the Spanish Revolution and later took a serious interest in French libertarian groups. He was enthusiastic about the council communist group Echanges et Mouvement. Ultimately this new version of politics took him away from Solidarity and he was expelled from the organisation. His politics were now centred in this aspect of ideas and activity.

Joe had worked on his autobiography and had practically finished the key passages when he died in 1977. His daughter Janet (partner of council communist Henri Simon) completed his manuscript and published the book privately, the great classic Out of the Ghetto (Re-published by Phoenix Press in 1991).

Alan Woodward’s brief account of Joe Jacobs’ life since 1940, After Cable Street – Joe Jacobs 1940 to 1977, is available from past tense here.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

 

Today in London’s radical history: Mile End mass meeting celebrates Russian Revolution, 1917.

On 24th March 1917, 7000 people pack the Mile End Assembly Rooms in East London, for a mass meeting celebrating the February Revolution in Russia and the downfall of Tsarism. 1000s more were unable to get in. Called by the Russian Socialist Groups, the meeting was mainly attended by Russian refugees and socialists of various stripes.

The East End – Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Mile End in particular – was at this time teeming with Russian exiles, many of them socialists, and especially Jews. Hundreds of thousands of Jews had been forced to flee Russia by the violent anti-semitism of the Tsarist regime. Many other leftists, socialists, anarchists and others had also taken refuge during regular bouts of reactionary repression there – most notably after the defeated 1905 Russian Revolution. While always involved with politics in the area they settled in, many exiles kept one eye on events back in Russia. So the area was full of joy and hope when the hated regime was overthrown…

The impact of the February Revolution was huge, given the history of the Tsars as the most repressive regime in Europe. It wasn’t just widely welcomed among the exiles – Aneurin Bevan recalled in South Wales “the miners when they heard that the Tsarist tyranny had been overthrown, rushing to meet each other in the streets with tears streaming down their cheeks, shaking hands and saying: ‘At last it has happened!’ ” There was an upsurge of strikes in Britain, inspired by Russian events… Conscientious objectors in prisons also heard the news, and went on strike…

George Chicherin, a Russian refugee living in London, who was later to join the Soviet government and become its Foreign Minister, described the Mile End meeting:

“It was an unforgettable demonstration of enthusiasm, unbounded joy and revolutionary feeling. Over 7000 persons were present, and many thousands were unable to get in and had to go away… again and again delirious outbursts of boundless enthusiasm filled the immense hall.”

Many of the East End’s Jewish and socialist exiles were to return to Russia, to get involve in the struggle to push change further, which was to result in another revolution in October…

The Mile End Assembly Rooms were on Mile End Road, roughly where no 31 is now, just to the east of Cambridge Heath Road.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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