Today in London striking history, 1966: A series of guerilla strikes begin at the ENV Engineering Works, Willesden

E.N.V. was an early manufacturer of aircraft engines, originally called the London and Parisian Motor Company, their first model appearing in 1908. E.N.V. engines were used by several pioneer aircraft builders and were produced in both France and the UK until about 1914. They subsequently specialised in camshafts and bevel gear manufacture.

The castings and forgings for its engines were made in Sheffield where the company was originally based, then taken to France for assembly. The reason for this was that there was much more aeronautical activity in France than in England in 1908, but the French were taxing imported machinery.

The French works were in Courbevoie in the Paris suburbs. By 1909 there was more aviation activity in England and E.N.V. decided to begin full manufacture at home, at Willesden, North London. At that time a separate company was formed to produce the aero-engines in Willesden,

In 1964 ENV became part of the Eaton, Yale and Towne group, losing its identity in 1968: the Willesden Works closed in the same year.

ENV’s works in Willesden became a hotbed of rank and file union activity, which peaked in a series of strikes in 1966.

Militancy in the factory is discussed in this article, written at the time of the campaign against the works’ closure, in late 1967.

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A Working-Class Defeat: The ENV Story
(Winter 1967/68)
Joyce Rosser & Colin Barker

Nicked from International Socialism (1st series), No.31,Winter 1967/68, pp.21-32.

Authors’ intro: We are grateful to the shop stewards of ENV and to others in the North London labour movement who gave us so much of their time and help in writing this article. None of them will agree with
everything we say, and we should like to pay tribute to them for their patience with us. All responsibility for this article must necessarily be ours.
We hope we have not done them too great an injustice.

  1. Before the Attack

The initial emergence of ENV as a militant factory seems to have taken place in the period after the War, and particularly in the latter years of the Labour Government. In the context of a Government wage freeze, supported by the great majority of union executives, shop-floor action in support of local wage claims gradually developed.

Under a predominantly Communist Party leadership, the factory had a whole series of small stoppages, go-slows, overtime bans, etc. In general these actions were successful, and there was little managerial resistance to shop-floor demands, provided that the stewards and workers backed these up with action or the threat of action. The workers themselves were prepared to go on strike, as experience had shown that the strike-weapon was both effective and relatively speedy in operation.

In November 1951, however, there was a more serious dispute. One of the shop stewards wished to have a meeting with the works manager, but a foreman refused to arrange this. When the convenor, Bill McLoughlin, took this up with the management the foreman physically threatened him. The factory struck, demanding the foreman’s removal. This strike lasted 13 weeks, and ended with a Government-appointed Court of Inquiry. The issue was one of some importance, for it was the first time that so explicit a challenge had been made to the management’s own prerogatives of choosing their staff. There is some dispute as to whether this was in fact a good issue on which to lead a protracted strike. It is unlikely that, if the men had realised quite how protracted the struggle would be, they would have agreed to go on strike over this issue, in the absence of a long period of preparation, agitation, etc on the issue of managerial functions in the months before the stoppage. The experience of the previous few years had led them to suppose that all strikes would be brief, and no attempt was made to point out to them that no management was likely to give in as easily on an issue of this kind, intimately touching as it did their power within the factory. On the other hand, the strike was over a question of trade-union principle, and this was the central issue. In this connection, it is possible that the Communist Party at this time were anxious to have strikes called in the motor industry, in line with current WFTU (World Federation of Trade Unions, the Communist Trade Union international) policy, and that the Communist stewards at ENV were to a degree more concerned with having a strike than with the principle of the thing.

The strike was made official, after six weeks, and then only by the AEU (Amalgamated Engineering Union). The T&GWU (Transport and General Workers’ Union), however, decided to pay strike-pay to its members, although it did not recognise the strike. Only a small proportion of the strike fund, which amounted in all to some £14,000 by the end of the strike, came from the official unions; the majority of the funds came from factory collections organised by the ENV stewards themselves, not only in the North London area, but all over Britain. Teams went out to Birmingham, the West of England, Scotland, etc, and it was largely through the efforts of the strike committee in organising their own financial support that the strike was maintained for so long. One interesting feature of this collection was the fact that it was by no means from the largest, or reputedly most ‘militant’ factories that the greatest support came: Fords of Dagenham gave the ENV stewards only £25, and the Austin factory at Longbridge gave only £50.

In about the tenth week, the strike began to crumble a little, as about 100 of the men went back to work. (Up to the tenth week at most half a dozen had blacklegged.) In the 13th week the Court of Inquiry reported, and recommended that there should be a return to work on the following terms: that the foreman should be removed from any contact with trade unionists, and that McLoughlin, the convenor, should be replaced in the post by another steward. The strike committee decided to accept these terms, with one dissenting voice (who urged that it was for the stewards and not a capitalist court to elect the convenor).

The obvious candidate for the post of convenor among the remaining stewards was the deputy convenor, Sid Wise, an ex-member of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party, and for a short time, with Gerry Healy, a member of the Socialist Outlook group. The Communist Party stewards, however, not wanting a Trotskyist convenor, proposed in his place Harry Ford. Much later Harry Ford was appointed safety and security officer by ENV, and was sacked in the summer of 1967 after he had played his part in the breaking of militant organisation in the factory (feeling against him after his promotion to management was considerable: one of his jobs was the setting of traps round the factory to catch the numerous cats that infested the place, and workers went around releasing the cats. Harry Ford complained of ‘lack of cooperation.’)

The two years after this big strike found the rank and file in the factory much more reluctant to take strike action. Until 1950-51 ENV had held a virtual monopoly in the manufacture of gears but from then on the car manufacturers (Austin and Morris in particular) started to make their own and the ENV management, fighting for a place in new markets, toughened their attitude.

From 1953 to the end of 1957 there were numerous strikes, almost without exception confined to particular sections of the factory. The most important activity during this period was the formulation of an eleven-point plan for fighting redundancy. This plan, whose main architect was Sid Wise, provided for a sliding scale of demands. It was discussed on a number of occasions at factory meetings in the middle of this period, and was accepted by the men as their policy on redundancy. It was not to be put to the test, however, until 1957.

A little before Christmas, 1957, the management informed the stewards that they would have to make ten per cent of the workforce redundant. The stewards were extremely concerned about the situation: it was just before the holiday period, the motor industry as a whole was in difficulties, and they were extremely doubtful about their ability to fight the management on this issue. True, they had a plan for dealing with redundancy, but although the men had given their support to the eleven-point plan in a period of prosperity, there had been doubt about it. Many of the men had felt that, although the plan was a good one, the management could not really be expected to pay a man for doing nothing.

At a factory meeting, however, when the stewards informed the men about the position, there was a demand from the men themselves that the stewards remember ‘our eleven-point plan.’ Many of them argued that it was better at least to ‘have a go with the plan,’ since there was nothing to lose anyway. The meeting instructed Geoff Carlsson, recently elected as convenor, to inform the management that they would not accept redundancy.

When Carlsson told Mr Pailing, the senior manager, that the men would not accept redundancy and that there would be a major strike if the management sacked anyone, Pailing walked out in a rage. The stewards told him that the furnaces would be closed down, and, after Pailing’s anger, fully expected to find next morning that the gates were locked against them. However, the management clearly decided that they would box clever, and informed the stewards that it was now their problem, and they would have to solve it themselves. Effectively this meant that the stewards would have to reorganise a considerable part of the production-arrangements, and the management no doubt expected that this would frighten the stewards into acceptance. They were unlucky.

The stewards’ committee accepted the responsibility and began the process of reorganisation. The men were put on to four and four-and-a-half day weeks, and were transferred from departments where there was a shortage of work to departments with enough to do. It took several months to sort the whole factory out, and the reorganisation was a process of continual improvisation. Although the reorganisation led to a certain amount of tension and jealousy, since it proved impossible to guarantee that everyone would suffer the same degree of inconvenience, the factory did stay united for nine months. For the whole of this period, although a number of men left voluntarily because of the work shortage, not one man was made redundant.

There was one incident which illustrated some of the conflicts and problems. Some men were supposed to be moved into one department, but the three men already working refused to accept them. Havelock, the manager, approached the stewards and asked them what they intended to do about their ‘three brothers.’ Carlsson told Havelock that he would either have to listen to the three men, or listen to the whole factory: if the three would not cooperate, then the management would have to sack them. This was done. As soon as the three men had been sacked, the stewards demanded that they be given a second chance. The three were visited and invited back to the factory; one refused, and two returned. This must be one of the few cases in which stewards have, in pursuit of a militant line, had men sacked; the essential thing in this case being, of course, that circumstances had turned the reorganisation itself into a dispute, and failure to cooperate with the majority was equivalent to crossing a picket-line.

The struggle over redundancy had several implications. Firstly, this was a period of fairly widespread struggles over redundancy. At BMC in the summer of 1956 there had been a strike over mass sackings. The labour movement was actively discussing policies for redundancy in various ways. Within the AEU, Communist Party militants were fighting for the acceptance of a rather dubious ‘right to work’ policy, whose principal demand was that workers should be retained on a firm’s books until ‘suitable alternative employment’ had been found for them; this rather legalistic approach left unanswered the whole question of what was ‘suitable’ and what was ‘alternative.’ In this general context the example of ENV stood out as one of the very few factories in which redundancy was actually fought successfully; managements in other local factories found that their stewards were less amenable, and were quoting the ENV example when sackings were demanded.

Secondly, the way the struggle had been conducted raised, although in only a partial way, issues of workers’ control within the factory. ENV management had to accept a situation for nine months in which the workers’ shop-floor representatives took over control of manning scales in the different shops, and organised production within the factory to an extent previously unheard of. It should be noted that this was done without any of the blueprints for workers’ control that are currently being offered on the Left, but was a process of continual improvisation in response to concrete problems in the factory.

Thirdly, the lesson was not lost on management. As we shall see below, when the ENV management finally set about the systematic destruction of the stewards’ committee they at no time attempted to remove the stewards on the pretext of a redundancy, for they knew that if redundancy were threatened the men would fight it. Given the history of the factory, the management’s choice of weapon – the (completely false) assertion that they were going to close the factory down – becomes more comprehensible.

Towards the end of 1958 trade picked up again and there was a return to the earlier pattern of national wage claims and disputes. In 1959 the stewards attempted to bring the factory together for a unified wage claim. The pattern of wage advances within the factory up to that time had been uneven, each shop fighting by itself for its own particular claims, and the whole factory’s wages going up by fits and starts through a process of leapfrogging and comparisons. The stewards, fearing the effects of differentials among the workers, proposed that the factory should fight as a whole, but at a factory meeting a majority of the men turned this idea down.

Six of the most militant shops then went out on strike on their own, in support of their own wage claims. This was not especially successful, since the balance of forces within the factory was now altered: the six most militant departments were outside the gates, and the weaker ones were still inside. As was traditional, the labourers immediately blacked all the work from the six shops on strike. There then arose a division on the stewards’ committee (composed for the occasion of the stewards from the shops remaining inside the gate). The majority of the stewards unfortunately argued that the question of blacking should be put to a factory meeting; the minority of militants urged that this was not necessary, since the labourers were already, on their own initiative, blacking the six shops’ work. But the majority argument was carried, and at a factory meeting (not including the men from the six shops) the blacking was rejected. The labourers then began handling the work again, and, with the factory’s strength evaporating rapidly, the men from the six militant shops had to make the best settlements they could.

Two years later there was again a similar danger that the factory might be divided. Under the National Agreements in the engineering industry piece-workers are supposed to be able to make an average minimum bonus of 45 per cent, or about 8£d per hour. In fact this agreement is completely out of date, at least for all but the most backward factories. At ENV average bonuses ranged from six to eight shillings an hour. But the existence of the agreement provided the ENV workers with a handy weapon; when working a go-slow they could justifiably argue that they were fulfilling the terms of the National Agreements and making the requisite 45 per cent bonus. The tactic was known as ‘working time-work.’

In the grinding shop a go-slow of this kind ran for a number of weeks. The grinding shop was of some importance in the factory’s production flow, and there were pile-ups of work from some departments and shortages in others. The action of one shop could seriously disrupt production throughout the factory, and this could easily create resentment, especially when, as in this case, the grinders were among the highest-paid groups already. In cases like these there was usually a certain amount of grumbling among the men in other shops, although it must be added that this grumbling never actually stopped them from giving the required support. Faced with the grinders’ protracted go-slow, and refusing to meet their demand for more money, the management approached Sir William Carron, president of the AEU, who informed the stewards that they must abide by National Agreements. The stewards’ answer was that they were abiding by these agreements, but Carron replied – in the spirit if not the letter of what the employers had intended – that the grinding shop must resume normal production. The stewards ignored this instruction. As the pile-ups and shortages continued, the rest of the factory decided to go on ‘time work’ as well: At this the management put out a notice stating that the grinding shop must resume normal working by 11 a.m. that day, or be sent home, and that the rest of the factory had until 2 p.m. to return to normal working, or be clocked out.

When these ultimatums were ignored, the whole factory was in fact clocked out. On the stewards’ instructions the men stayed at work. The foremen refused to give them any work-cards, so the men simply carried on with the jobs that were already in the shops. This went on for several days, with the management pretending that it had no workers, and the factory buzzing with activity. No wages were paid, and no record was kept of times on jobs. After a few days the management decided to come to terms, reached a settlement with the grinders and paid the whole factory back pay at a standard, consolidated time rate.

  1. An ‘organised’ factory

The above stories should make it clear that ENV was a highly organised factory from the trade-union point of view. Although there is always the danger of exaggeration, it seems clear, that it was one of the best-organised in the London area. It was the very fact of its high level of organisation, indeed, that was responsible for the major managerial offensive that developed there over the years 1962 to 1967.

In calling ENV an ‘organised’ or ‘militant’ factory one or two things have to be borne in mind. In the first place, the organisation was developed by the stewards and the men within the factory, with very little reference to the official union structure outside. The union outside was of very little importance; indeed, in general the stewards only had recourse to the union officials as a ‘face-saver.’ In situations where a return to work was necessary at the end of a dispute, and there was little possibility of going back on the terms the stewards and men wanted, then the officials might well be called in, to advise the men to go back. In this way the officials rather than the stewards would carry the blame for the element of ‘defeat.’

Secondly, one of the most important aspects of its ‘militancy’ as a factory was ENV’s readiness to help other sections of the labour movement who were in dispute. The stewards claim – not without justification – that the first place in London to which workers would turn for help was the ENV stewards’ committee. Any group of workers coming to ENV could be assured of an immediate donation from the stewards’ funds, and in a number of cases there were regular collections taken on the shop floor in support of disputes in other factories. Some of these collections were very considerable. During the 13-week strike at British Light Steel Pressings, Acton, in 1961, for instance, collections taken among the 1,100 workers at ENV amounted to over £1,500. During the strike of predominantly coloured workers at Marriott’s in Southall in 1963 a weekly collection of a shilling a head was maintained for 30 weeks – amounting to £1,717, or 18 per cent of the national total contribution.

This readiness to help other workers in dispute contrasted strongly with other so-called ‘militant’ factories in which assistance, particularly on this kind of scale, is very much the exception, or is subject to various conditions and qualifications. Mention has already been made of the poor response from a number of factories during the 1951 strike at ENV itself. One of the stewards, at that time a CP member, recounts how he visited the Austin factory at Longbridge and was only able to persuade the convenor there to help the ENV workers when he produced his Party card. During the Marriott strike, indeed, this kind of political exclusiveness led to serious divisions among groups within the Party itself. Due to the involvement of the Socialist Labour League in the dispute, the Southall District Committee, under CP influence, would do nothing to help the strike, declaring it ‘Trotskyite.’ And when Reg Birch and Bill McLoughlin of the London Committee (also Party members) wished to do something to help the Marriott strikers, they were verbally attacked by the Southall Committee. [1] At ENV, although there were serious disagreements over the way the strike was conducted, differences of this kind did not at any time inhibit the basic principle of solidarity with other workers in dispute. Even after it was felt that the strike should have been called off, ENV stewards and workers took part in the Marriott demonstrations, contributed to the strike fund, etc.

Thirdly, and most important, the term ‘well organised’ within the factory refers especially to the relationship that was built up and maintained between the workers and their stewards. Throughout the whole history of the factory this relationship was one of close support. Had this not been so, it is difficult to see how the 1957-58 fight against redundancy could have been kept up. Workers would not take orders from their foremen without reference to their stewards. On average a full meeting of the factory in the works canteen was held at least once a fortnight. What is more important, the calling of factory meetings was something decided by the stewards themselves without reference to management. In fact there was an agreement with the management to the effect that in the event of anyone working during a factory meeting they would not be paid wages. This came about as a result of a threat not to start work after a meeting if anyone had been working. As soon as an issue arose, a meeting would be called; there was no question of delaying a meeting to suit the convenience of the management or their production schedules. In effect, therefore, the very calling of a meeting amounted to a stoppage of production. Through this use of regular meetings the membership in the factory was kept fully informed of all developments in negotiations with management, and their feelings were communicated directly to the stewards. Thus the all too common phenomenon of a stewards’ committee that adopts a militant posture towards management but loses contact with its rank and file was avoided.

The stewards too met frequently. Apart from numerous ad hoc meetings on particular issues, there were regular meetings twice a week of the entire stewards’ committee. These meetings took place on Tuesdays at lunchtime and again after work. Unlike many other engineering factories, it was the policy of the ENV committee to refuse payment from the management for time spent at stewards’ meetings, apart from one hour’s wages every other Tuesday evening when the meeting began an hour before the normal working day ended. (This is a small point, but there are many factories where the stewards do, in a sense, gain material advantage from their positions: they receive payment for time spent at meetings, often after other workers have gone home; they perhaps administer overalls-cleaning schemes and receive a small payment for this. At ENV this kind of practice, which can tend to divide the steward from his ‘constituents,’ was rigorously opposed by the stewards themselves.)

All the various aspects of ‘organisation,’ of course, have a serious purpose: better wages and conditions. And at ENV wages were higher than elsewhere in the North London District, considerably higher than the District average and probably above the level in any other organised factory in the area. In February 1967, when the chairman and convenor were sacked, the average skilled man’s pay for a 40-hour week was just under £28. Like other militant factories, the atmosphere on the shop floor was very friendly. Also, ENV was probably unique in the engineering industry in that women workers got the same pay as men. One sign of the good conditions in the factory was the remarkably low rate of labour turnover: in the late 1950s the management told the stewards that on average 6 men a month were leaving (a rate of 6 per cent a year) of whom the majority were labourers. Of the others who left, most went because they were retiring or moving to another district. In fact the rate of labour turnover, most unusually, was higher among the clerical and administrative staff, and among the management themselves than it was among the men on the shop floor. There can be no doubt at all that militancy at ENV, as elsewhere, paid off in terms of good wages and conditions.

At no time did the stewards meet the management on any kind of formal ‘works committee’ with an agenda laid down by the management. All notions of joint production committees’ and other similar devices to get the workers’ representatives to take responsibility for the failures of capitalist production were strongly resisted as ‘stooge’ committees. Moreover, within the factory there were no rate-fixers allowed; in some departments there were even agreements totally banning the use of stop watches. The management had production departments and production advisers and other similar machinery of control, but in point of fact it was generally the men on the shop floor themselves who determined the amount and speed of production. To some degree this exists in every workshop, but at ENV this type of embryonic control was developed to quite a high degree: the workers had established tight ceilings on their earnings, which they varied as they saw fit, so that they could easily be used as sanctions against the management in case of dispute. At one point the management claimed that 55 per cent of the workers in the factory were on what was termed ‘dispute production.’

In the kind of environment that developed over the years at ENV, in which managerial control over a whole range of issues connected with discipline, production and so forth was hopelessly ineffective, it became possible for individual workers to develop their own special side-lines in open view of the management (some of whom did not even realise what was happening). Thus one man in the factory spent a large part of his time mending watches and clocks for his own customers – who included members of the management – while receiving a high average wage from the firm for his long hours of non-production. A labourers’ rest room gradually developed into a full-scale cafe, complete with a bar, tea-urn and sandwiches. In another part of the factory there was a highly organised cut-price shop. Proprietary rights to these ‘informal institutions’ were passed on from generation to generation. And one legendary worker had a dispute with his foreman, in the course of which he announced that he was not going to work for ENV any more. He came to work each day for six months, but for the whole of that time did nothing at all for the firm, spending his time making fancy metal goods for his mates. The wretched foreman let it pass for a couple of days, but then found that he could do nothing out of fear of his superiors. The possibilities for workers who wish to exploit the contradictions of bureaucracy are enormous! Another worker, who had been on a go slow the preceding week, refused to go home for his holidays without his correct pay, locked himself in the shop stewards’ room and phoned the national press. The management pleaded with him to come out, but he refused, and finally the money was pushed to him through a small hole in the window.

There were many more stories of small individual struggles against the management at the factory, as no doubt every other factory has its stories; what is important about them is that the majority would have been impossible without: a background of a very high level of organisation and control within the factory by the workers and their stewards.

  1. Problems of Organisation

The very fact of having a militant factory creates new problems for the shop stewards. In the first place, there is a constant tendency for the majority of the workers to assume that the situation is a stable one and to depend on their stewards for everything. This attitude threatens the whole strength of union organisation in a factory, which hangs on the maintenance of a continuous pattern of mutual interdependence between workers and stewards. Faced with a foreman attempting to get him to do something he did not want to do, a worker would immediately take the problem to his steward without attempting to handle it first himself. Stewards were relied on to help with all manner of personal problems, the writing of letters, marital questions and so forth. Much of this of course is a sign of the worker’s trust in his steward, but at the same time if it develops too far it tends to separate the stewards from the men as a special race apart.

Maintaining a high degree of organisation, and keeping the initiative in dealings with management, is not a simple matter of just going around ‘being militant’ but requires strategy and continual adaptation. No stewards who wish to maintain their organisation intact can afford to fight on every small issue that comes up for fear of wasting their strength and alienating sections of the factory. Issues for struggle have to be selected to some degree, and estimates made continually of relative strengths and weaknesses. Where, as happens all the time in a highly organised factory in a period of relative working-class political inactivity, workers ‘lean’ on the union there is a constant danger that the essentially fragile strength of the stewards vis-à-vis the management may be exposed. And this kind of problem is endemic. At ENV, for instance, there was a shop in which the men regularly finished work three quarters of an hour early, cleaned up the shop and then stood about waiting for the hooter with their coats on, deliberately provoking the management. The management knew very well that the men had finished their work for the day, and appealed to the stewards to get the men, not to carry on working, but to pretend that they were! On rare occasions men would come in drunk – an open invitation to the management to discipline them – and the stewards would have to get the other workers to keep them concealed until they had sobered up. Again, a rather unpopular worker urinated on the bins of work outside his shop instead of going to the lavatory, and was sacked. The stewards, feeling quite unable to call a strike over the man’s sacking, pleaded for suspension as an appropriate measure, and were relieved when the management agreed to alter the sacking to a suspension.

None of this in any way implies a weakness on the part of the ENV stewards: any militant, acting in a non-revolutionary situation, has to estimate all the time precisely how far he can push without exposing his weaknesses; an unimaginative excess of ‘militancy’ can weaken an organisation quite as much as the lack of it.

There are also various problems concerning relations between groups of workers within the one factory. Differentials are one: although the stewards resisted attempts to widen differentials, it was much more difficult to get them narrowed. Yet the existence of differentials can weaken the fighting capacity of a factory. If a highly paid shop goes on strike there is a danger that others in lower-paid departments will resent the cut-backs in production that follow, even though the higher-paid group are opening the way for further wage claims for the rest of the factory. Over the period from 1950 to 1965 differentials were probably maintained, more or less, in percentage terms, and of course widened quite considerably in cash terms. It must be noted, however, that this potential source of division, although it did on occasion lead to grumbling, did not at any time actually lead to serious divisions in the factory when one section needed support. For the whole of the period, some shops stayed in front of some of the others. In particular, the Hard Test shop were earning a significantly higher wage than the rest; they had a unique agreement whereby the whole shop’s wage was determined by one man’s production – with the result that whenever there was a dispute, all the men but one could go slow, cutting production by 80 per cent without loss of pay, while the one man maintained their earnings level by ‘highly organised scabbing!’ The management tried for years to get this agreement annulled, but without success. Although percentage differentials were not permitted to increase, attempts to reduce them were not very successful. The holiday bonus was changed from a differential to flat-rate system at a factory meeting, but generally it was not possible to overcome the feeling of the ‘skilled’ men (many of whom were in fact up-graded) that their differentials should be maintained. At the same time, the ENV factory did have an unusually high proportion of up-graded men, and the stewards never accepted the argument, regrettably still all too popular among some sections of the Left, that ‘skilled’ men had to have their position especially protected, at the cost of other sections of the class.

Within the AEU and other engineering unions there is, formally, a rule that overtime must not exceed 30 hours a month. This is a rule which is much more honoured in the breach, even in the majority of the organised factories. At ENV it was fairly rigidly adhered to, on the grounds that higher pay should be won through negotiations and not through extra work. The stewards won an agreement with the management whereby, if one man was asked to work overtime, the whole factory was immediately guaranteed three full months’ work. No evening or Sunday overtime at all was permitted, nor was overtime on the night shift. This policy tended on occasion to cause some dissent, especially among the labourers, who compared the hours they were permitted to work with the hours worked by labourers in other local factories. During overtime bans it was the labourers in particular who had to bear the brunt, but still the stewards insisted that if the labourers wanted more money they ought to win it by bar-gaming. The labourers were fortunate in their stewards, however, and their rates were higher than those obtaining in other local factories; thus the unity of the factory was never seriously impaired by this potential division.

Despite the fact that on many occasions the strength of the organisation within ENV was available to help other sections of workers in dispute, it would be a mistake to imagine that the ENV stewards were very popular in other factories. They were admired for the level of their organisation and militancy, certainly, but at the same time this admiration was touched with a degree of jealousy among less successful militants in other factories, a problem that was compounded by political differences between the leading elements among the ENV stewards (in the latter days) and the majority of the District Committee. They made several attempts to get a representative on to the District Committee, but on each occasion were blocked for political reasons. When they succeeded in getting Ron Johnson on, he was virtually isolated by other delegates for most of the time. When the final battle was joined by the management, there were reports of local militants remarking, ‘It serves them right. They were too greedy.’ Thus, through no wish of their own, the ENV stewards were really quite isolated from other local militants. Such a position of isolation is especially dangerous for a highly organised factory like ENV, which tended to stand out for local managements like a sore thumb. In the North London area, ENV was something of a symbol to all the enemies of militant factory organisation, not only the local managements and the Government but the union bureaucracies as well.

Thus for some time it was apparent that sooner or later the management at ENV, with the backing of other local employers, the majority of the AEU executive and others, would initiate action against the ENV organisation. The same thing had happened at other organised factories in the London area: the British Light Steel Pressings strike in 1961 and the Ford debacle in the winter of 1962-63 were the most obvious examples. There is a danger, therefore, in such a situation that the stewards will grow over-confident, over-estimate their actual strength and work on the assumption that they will be able to hold the situation in the factory static for as long as they like. This very much bothered a couple of the stewards’ committee, Carlsson and Hogan, who were convinced that sooner or later they would have to accept some form of increased productivity, if only to avoid a major management offensive against their whole position. Carlsson and Hogan did, therefore, work out a serious plan for presentation to the management, which would allow for the introduction of new work methods, etc, while keeping the advantage with the stewards. The cardinal point of the plan was a proposal to reduce differentials and demand a higher consolidated rate in such a manner that the lower-paid workers would get much larger rises than the higher-paid. The plan was worked out in the explicit expectation of an attack by the management, and rested on the recognition that some kind of change was inevitable. What mattered was that the stewards should anticipate the management and seek to keep such changes under their control. However, when Carlsson and Hogan presented their ideas to the stewards’ committee, the plan was turned down with very little discussion; the stewards most vocal against it (calling it a ‘sell-out’) were in fact the least politically aware of the stewards, and also the least militant.

Given the failure of this attempt to control the pace of change within the factory, it became almost inevitable that the management would initiate some kind of attack on the stewards. The form that it took was not however arrived at all of a sudden: the managements (who changed with great rapidity over the period 1964-66) tried a number of approaches without success before they worked out the final formula that led to the defeat of the ENV organisation. It is worth remarking in general, however, that in a factory which is both more highly organised than other local factories (and in which wage costs are consequently higher than elsewhere, and management control weaker) and which is isolated more or less from the rest of the local labour movement, the management is bound, sooner or later, to demand changes. The problem for stewards in this situation is one of finding a way of reacting in a realistic manner to preserve the essentials of their organisation, often while accepting that some concessions will have to be made. In a sense the final defeat of the ENV stewards is a measure of their failure to manage this. It is to the story of their defeat that we now turn.

  1. The American Takeover

In 1962 the giant American firm of Eaton, Yale and Towne bought the ENV factories at Willesden and Aycliffe. It seems that they were anxious to get a foothold in the aircraft industry and in the Common Market. Later they bought another factory in Manchester. They immediately set out to change things and in particular to destroy the power of the trade-union organisation at Willesden.

Initially they used a succession of British managers for these tasks. These were frequently given time limits in which to produce results – if they failed they left. During the next four years there was a very high turnover of managers at the factory as new men and new methods were tried. These managers were carefully watched by American managers, some of whom actually worked at ENV. Townsend, who later smashed the factory organisation, worked for six months as General Manager before taking over completely.

Some managers tried to win the support and cooperation of the workers by stressing that in the long run the interests of management and workers were the same; both would benefit from a prosperous factory. They made special approaches to the shop stewards. An American who worked for a year at Willesden as a ‘tool specialist’ took the stewards on trips to other factories and attempted to make friends with the workers. He later became Managing Director of the Manchester factory. Another manager called Hill tried the same approach, stressing that he was also only an employee and that he was really on the workers’ side. He would show his trade union card to everyone and was continually attacking the other managers. Another kept telling the stewards that he was working in close touch with George Brown (whom he assumed the stewards would support) and that the management were keen to do what the Labour Government wanted (which they were!).

A Dr Jarrett from CAV (a part of the Lucas electrical group) was then made Managing Director. He started productivity bargaining throughout the factory. As he said, ‘We want you to earn more money … this is the socialist approach of equality.’ Hill commented, ‘I’m a bit of a Communist myself and Dr Jarrett has got a real socialist plan.’

These crude approaches were hardly likely to fool anyone. Some of the managers brought in were just hatchet men with no experience, including ex-naval commanders and the like. Similarly approaches and offers made specially to the shop stewards were also rejected. For instance, they were offered a proper office, that the management deduct union dues from wages, and some stewards were offered supervisory jobs (as mentioned above, one ex-convenor accepted).

Jarrett introduced into the factory Emersons, the Work Study firm which had been responsible for the Fawley agreements. A meeting was arranged with the shop stewards at which the Emersons’ representative outlined their plan. Jarrett then said that he expected the shop stewards would like to ask questions; but the stewards walked out and refused any cooperation. They threatened that the workers would go out if the Emerson people as much as came on to the shop floor. So although Emersons had an office in the factory for several months, they never did a thing. This is the only known occasion on which Emersons have failed to get any concessions whatsoever.

It was also Jarrett who started productivity bargaining in the factory. The management had issued several statements about the unsatisfactory state of affairs at ENV and how they were losing orders. They stressed that everyone would benefit from greater productivity at the factory – ‘High wages and high productivity go together.’ They also produced outline proposals for a new wage structure, both simplifying it and making it fairer.

The productivity campaign had a certain appeal for the workers, because the management were saying that there was to be more money but no redundancies. Also there was discontent about the existing pay structure and differentials. Even though the stewards realised that productivity deals represented a disguised form of attack on union organisation and working conditions, the plausibility of management’s offer made it difficult for them to refuse participation, unless they were to cut themselves off from the rest of the workers. So the stewards participated in the central and shop committees which were set up. The management were then very desultory over productivity bargaining.

Many of the lower managers were reluctant to suggest changes as they did not want to carry the can if things went wrong. So most of the proposals and suggestions came from the shop stewards’ side. But after many months only a few agreements had been reached and there was no agreement on the new wages structure. Some of the agreements which were concluded revealed both the strength of the shop floor organisation on these issues and the general incompetence of the management. For instance the packers agreed to a reduction from 16 to 12 men when in fact there had been 12 all along and also agreed to help with loading and unloading lorries which they had also always done. For these ‘concessions’ they got 1s an hour extra. The stacker-truck drivers agreed to become ‘mobile’ for an extra 1s an hour. Before this agreement each driver had regarded himself as attached to a particular shop and would only take loads from his own shop but would not bring them back. The failure of productivity bargaining to produce any real result meant the end of Jarrett who admitted at one time that he had been given a deadline of only a few months to produce results.

In 1966 there was a dispute in the milling shop and work from this shop was blacked. The management then sacked a worker who refused to be moved to this department. At this time the management seemed anxious to provoke a strike and get the workers outside; the stewards on the other hand were trying to avoid this, preferring to choose their own issue and occasion for a major fight. A factory meeting was held over the sacking and three shop stewards went to see Jarrett. He refused to meet them, so the meeting decided to go en masse to Jarrett’s office; ‘If he won’t see three of us, he’ll have to see all of us.’ About 1,000 workers marched singing through the office to Jarrett’s office. Jarrett declared he would have a meeting the next day but this was not accepted. Finally he said that the man would not be sacked or suspended. This incident led to the resignation of Jarrett a few weeks later and was also referred to later by the management as an example of the ‘anarchy’ existing in the factory.

  1. The Final Offensive

On Jarrett’s resignation in June 1966 Townsend assumed full control and became Managing Director. Only a few weeks later he notified shop stewards that things had gone too far, the company was losing money and there were too many disputes. He announced that the management were not prepared to negotiate with the stewards until normal working conditions were resumed. He had asked the Engineering Employers’ Federation to approach the Executive Councils of the unions to arrange an informal Joint Composite Conference to be held at the Willesden factory. Until that Conference was held there were going to be no more negotiations with the stewards.

It seems probable that in the meantime Townsend had had a secret meeting with Carron at the Confederation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Unions Conference. Some of the stewards saw a letter from the management to the AEU headquarters trying to arrange this meeting. Carlsson made this public in the local press and was never disciplined for it. Townsend obviously wanted to make direct contact with Carron. There were other examples of contact between the ENV management and the AEU head office: the management for instance, used to collect all references to ENV stewards and workers in the press and agendas of factory and stewards’ meetings, and send them to Carron.

The joint Composite Conference was held on 4th July. Amongst the representatives of the AEU were Carron, Boyd, Berridge from the Executive, Reg Birch (then Divisional Organiser) and District Officials. Carron and Berridge warned the ENV stewards before the meeting that they must be prepared to compromise. National officers of the ETU, TGWU, ASPD and ASW were also present. ASSET were not informed and when Mike Cooley of DATA tried to attend the meeting he was refused admittance because the Conference was just for representatives of manual workers, not staff unions. All ENV stewards attended as did the top ENV management, some of whom were flown over from the States.

Townsend opened the Conference with a prepared statement illustrated with charts showing the company’s position. In his words he was ‘astounded, amazed and shocked.’ According to him the company was losing money and customers. He admitted that in the past there had been weak management at ENV and it was natural that the stewards would take advantage of this. But, he went on, ‘The main reason why we are here today is labour relations; the management will not put up with the actions of the shop stewards and therefore are refusing to negotiate with them.’ He complained of the ‘mass of domestic and verbal agreements’ at the factory, and of the fact that ‘two unauthorised mass factory meetings have taken place, one culminating in the march of an unruly mob through the Executive Offices … this is anarchy and will not be tolerated in the future.’

He went to warn the union executives that although he was asking them to support the management’s actions in making these changes, ‘if the unions are unable to do this, we will take the necessary steps ourselves.’ Even Carron could not accept Townsend’s approach: ‘If you insist on going forward in the way you are, then you must expect a revolution.’ Of course, Carron was merely defending procedure, not threatening anything. He insisted that whatever proposals the management had must go through stewards and local officials.

Townsend then went on to outline the management’s proposals which were presented in the form of two documents called Management Functions and Interim Agreement. The effect of the proposals would have been to wipe out all the gains and benefits won by the trade-union organisation at the factory over the previous 20 years.

Firstly, the management intended to check all domestic and verbal agreements and would renegotiate them in a revised form that would make them clear. Of course these agreements were one of the strengths of the shop-floor organisation, especially the purely verbal agreements which could be interpreted as necessary whenever a dispute arose. The management had often complained that they did not know of the existence of half of the supposed agreements.

Secondly, standards were to be set up by ‘modern time-study methods’ and would include multi-machine operation. At the same time that the new standards were applied a graded wage structure of between five and nine grades would be introduced. Payments to time-workers were no longer to be linked to pieceworkers’ earnings and when an established piece-work rate was in dispute, payment would continue at the established rate until agreement was reached through procedure. Townsend admitted that the management had not yet decided whether in the long run the factory would continue to operate on piece-work or on measured day-work.

Amongst the other management proposals were things like mobility of labour, shift working as required, tea breaks to be limited to 10 minutes, and so on. Also the management would be able to transfer work to other factories as it wished. Towns-end mentioned that if these proposals were not accepted the factory might have to close.

Carron and the other officials made it clear that they were not prepared to agree to this. If the management wanted to change the agreements they must operate through the procedure, which meant first of all discussing it with the shop stewards. Carron reminded Townsend that the employers had as much obligation to go through procedure as the work people. The employers accepted this point.

However after this Conference the ENV management still refused to meet the stewards. So at a factory meeting it was decided to have token stoppages in protest. A series of guerilla stoppages to start on 20th July was planned. Each evening different shops were to be told by the stewards to go out the next morning for a few hours. At this stage it seems clear that the workers were prepared to resist the management. In fact the workers were prepared to resist the management right up until closure was announced.

On the day before these stoppages were due to begin a conference was held at the Employers’ Federation headquarters. At this the ENV management agreed to resume negotiations with the stewards the following morning. However the meeting finished late and so it was impossible to inform the workers at Willesden about the decision.

On the morning of 20 July, as planned earlier, the stoppages started. The management now announced that they knew nothing about the agreement made the previous day. This is one incident quoted by the stewards to illustrate how it was impossible to trust the ‘new’ (i.e. American) management – at least the ‘old’ management did keep their word. This resentment of the methods of the new management was one of the reasons that the stewards used the contrast between the British and American managements and made it a political issue.

Anyway, on this morning the storemen and electricians were already out as planned. They were due to come in at 10 o’clock. When they tried to return to work the management would not let them in and locked them out for the rest of the day. Carlsson, the stewards’ chairman who went out to see them, was stopped at the gate but pushed his way in. Shortly after this the management threatened to sack a stacker driver who refused to pick up a load as a protest in support of the workers locked out. A factory meeting was held and it was decided that if some workers were out then they would all go out. They planned to come back the following morning.

The next day the workers came back to find the electricity switched off, and everyone being herded into the canteen. On the platform were half a dozen managers and two representatives of the Electoral Reform Society. When all the workers had entered the canteen the doors were locked and Townsend made a speech about the crisis the factory was facing. He said that it came down to a choice – either the factory could stay open upon new conditions or it would be closed. He told the workers that they must now vote on whether they were prepared to accept the management’s proposals. Ballot boxes had been placed by each door and as each worker left the meeting he was to take a form and put it in the box. The ballot would be run by the Electoral Reform Society.

After Townsend had spoken Carlsson made a speech from the floor in which he condemned the methods being used by the management and insisted that the proposals must go through the shop stewards. He launched attacks upon the recent change in behaviour of several of the managers on the platform, but excluded Wilson, a popular representative of the ‘old’ management. Mitchell, the convenor, then spoke and said that he was walking out of the meeting and wanted everyone to follow him

stewards and some workers left the canteen, but immediately after they had gone the management locked the doors behind them, leaving the majority of the workers inside. So the stewards and other workers forced the doors open, upturned the ballot boxes, and the meeting broke up. During this meeting police in black marias were stationed near the factory and a manager phoned for them to come round to the back gate. The press and TV came down to the factory immediately after the meeting. Possibly it was a mistake to walk out of the meeting rather than argue the case out in full in front of the workers, showing that there was an alternative and then letting them refuse to vote in the management’s ballot. However the next day a factory meeting was held to which the press were invited and the workers voted unanimously in support of their shop stewards and against the management’s proposals.

At this meeting the workers passed a unanimous resolution stating that they would rather accept closure than any worsening of their pay and conditions. This resolution was continually re-affirmed at further meetings throughout the following period, and to the time of writing (late October 1967) still represents the attitude of those who remain at ENV.

Townsend announced that this sort of ‘intimidation’ would not put him off and he was going to organise another ballot, but this time it would be a postal one. Again it was organised by the Electoral Reform Society, who used the same pre-paid envelopes which they had used in an ETU ballot. Apparently the ETU did not object to paying for this ballot; they said they were not interested in taking the matter up. On another occasion one ETU official remarked that the ENV stewards ‘deserved to be shot’ if the management’s story was true.

Reg Birch protested about the postal ballot, but Townsend refused to drop it. However a few days later the ENV management called it off themselves because of ‘interference’ by the stewards – ‘once more the stewards had wrecked it.’ The vast majority of workers had returned the ballot forms to their shop stewards.

At about the same time a factory meeting was held at which the stewards attempted to settle outstanding disputes. This was done in order to prevent management having an excuse for locking workers out. Several disputes were settled as a result of this meeting. Negotiations were going on between shop stewards and management over the management’s proposals. On all major issues ‘failure to agree’ was recorded and the issues were passed to local officials.

On 24 August all ENV workers received letters saying that the Willesden factory was going to close. There was to be a phased close-down to be carried out over the next few months. The management gave as the reason the financial position of the factory which was, they said, aggravated by the government’s economic policies.

The major issue for the next few months was whether this announcement was genuine or only a bluff. The majority of workers and stewards tended to believe that the closure was genuine; only the convenor and chairman believed consistently that it was a bluff and that they must act accordingly. Yet there was plenty of evidence that the picture the management painted of the financial situation at ENV was inaccurate. Firstly, the aircraft sections at ENV were always busy and work from other departments too was deliberately being transferred to Aycliffe and Manchester or abroad- Secondly, the Annual Reports of the company showed large profits and increases in orders. Finally the management’s account of the effect of government policy was clearly misleading. For instance ENV as a manufacturing firm would stand to gain considerably, not lose, from the Selective Employment Tax.

Looking back it is now easy to say that it was a bluff but at the time the great majority of workers and stewards were not sure. The ENV management’s campaign had had a long build up over the previous years, with frequent announcements of ‘crises.’ Now they stressed continually that the factory was to close, and without any qualification. And of course even if one did not accept the firm’s reasons for closure, there was still the possibility that if in the last resort they could not defeat the trade union organisation in any other way, they would close down the factory, even if only temporarily. Whether this would have been possible is more difficult to say; the fact that the aircraft sections had plenty of work throughout the next six months suggests that the management would have found it very difficult to transfer all the work that the factory was doing.

The other issue which became of increasing importance was that of redundancy payments. The workers started to think of these payments and what they were going to spend them on. Since most of the workers had long service, the sums involved were quite considerable – many of them over £500. The management argued that if there were a strike, this would count as misconduct and would mean that the workers would lose redundancy payments. The stewards denied this and got lawyers to back them up, but this type of rumour had a considerable influence.

  1. The Campaign Against Closure

At the beginning of September the unions challenged the management’s case at the longest Local Conference on record. McLoughlin, an ex-ENV convenor, now local AEU official, opened the union’s case. He rejected the management’s figures which showed falling profits and losses of orders, and quoted Eaton publications which gave a glowing report of trade prospects. The President of the Employers’ Federation, who had just been to the USA at Eaton’s expense, then said that the closure was definite, and even if the management’s earlier proposals were accepted by the workers, it would not make any difference. He stressed that this was the result of the government’s economic policy.

At the end of this Local Conference, a failure to agree was recorded and in October 1966 the issue went to Central Conference at York where there was still no agreement. The night before the conference Carron stated that he did not see why he should take up the reference since both the management and he had been criticised sharply by Carlsson, and he had to be reminded that the jobs of more than 1,000 workers were at stake. After the closure was announced the ENV stewards began organising their campaign. In their publicity, they attempted to show that the closure announcement was only a bluff to defeat the workers’ organisation. They also attempted to get support by arguing that the ENV management’s policies were against the Labour Government’s policy of increasing exports. They argued that the bulk of the goods produced at ENV were exported and that the balance of payments figures would suffer if the factory did close and the work was transferred out of the country. The ENV stewards got the support of Brent Trades Council which organised meetings and marches about ENV. Marches were held in Willesden and Wembley. The issue was also brought up at meetings of the Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee, which had originated months before out of a legal dispute concerning the ENV convenor, Mitchell.

Deputations of ENV stewards and workers went to the TUC conference at Blackpool and the Labour Party conference at Brighton where they held demonstrations. A group of workers went to the Farnborough Air Show and picketed the ENV stand in order to illustrate the conflict between reports of the factory closing down and attempts to get new orders.

The stewards issued regular statements to the press about ENV. They told the press that work was being transferred from Willesden to factories in the USA. But although some of the journalists were interested in the stories, nothing appeared. The stewards found out that some of the journalists had been warned by the AEU head office that if they did print the stories about ENV then they would not get any more stories from the union.

The stewards organised lobbies of MPs and tried to get support and questions asked in Parliament. When they first tried to contact the MPs, many of them, especially the Left-wingers, agreed to help. But very few of them did so. Russell Kerr, who expressed great interest, later walked into one of the ENV meetings by mistake, much to his embarrassment as he had done nothing. The MP for Uxbridge, Ryan, promised to help but never turned up. But perhaps the worst case was that of the two Willesden MPs, Laurie Pavitt and Reg Freeson. They had been in close touch with the factory for years and had often held factory gate meetings there. ENV had raised canvassing teams to go out for them at election times. When the closure was announced, the stewards arranged a meeting with both of them. Pavitt and Freeson came and announced that they could not interfere as they had just discovered that ENV was not in their constituencies! In fact it was just inside the boundary of North Hammersmith, and so the ENV stewards were told to go to their own MP, Tomney. Pavitt and Freeson then went off to a meeting with the ENV management and didn’t see the stewards again.

When a meeting of MPs at the House of Commons was called to discuss ENV, only four turned up. Two of these, Stan Orme and Norman Atkinson, who were AEU MPs, said that they could not stay because they had been advised not to listen as the AEU Executive was going to advise them on the case. The only MPs who did consistently try to help were Sid Bidwell and Bill Molloy. Bidwell and Molloy were warned for taking the matter up and Molloy lost his chance of promotion.

In general the Left wing MPs were useless on an issue like this. A few were genuinely sympathetic, but where they were required to be more than ‘social workers with connections,’ they were too frightened to come out openly.

A few questions were asked in the House of Commons but these were mostly ‘safe’ questions, about the value of exports which would be lost and so on. The fact that the gears which ENV made for defence purposes could not be made elsewhere in Britain and would have to be made in the USA or on the continent was never mentioned, although at the time it would have created quite a controversy.

It was known that the ENV management had already had meetings with members of the government. One of the American managers went to a meeting with Austin Albu and he took a copy of the Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee’s pamphlet on Incomes Policy with him.

The ENV stewards and the union officials had a meeting with Douglas Jay and then with Shirley Williams, both at the Board of Trade. Mrs Williams said that they seemed to have a good case and if any union asked for an investigation it would take place. Only the DATA representative took up this offer, but nothing happened.

The results from this type of campaign – contacting MPs, questions in the House, and so on – seem to have been nil. One serious criticism which has been made is that it diverted attention away from the factory and took up effort which could have been used in trying to get opposition organised inside the factory. In point of fact, the campaign outside was only an alternative because there was no action within.

Regularly after the closure was announced, calls for a factory strike were put to factory meetings. The shop stewards recommended strike action as they knew that this was the only way they could win. Yet the strike calls were always turned down by large majorities. Among the workers and some of the stewards, doubts about whether the closure was a bluff or not persisted. Most workers were prepared to let the stewards attempt to avert the closure but they were not willing to risk sacrificing their redundancy pay. In the meantime they were anxious to increase their earnings in order to increase the amounts of these payments.

During this period the management were transferring work from Willesden to Aycliffe and Manchester in order to lay off Willesden workers. This was well known at the time. One criticism of the stewards was that they should have foreseen the situation arising out of this transfer of work months before and should have prevented it. When the Manchester stewards offered to black this work, the Willesden stewards turned down their offer on the grounds that since there was no opposition in their factory it was not fair to leave it to Manchester when they themselves were doing nothing. In this way they deliberately passed the buck back to their own workers.

In October the management announced that they wanted another stock-taking and therefore some workers must do overtime. Since they were proposing to lay off workers because there was not enough work, the factory banned overtime. As a result some sections were locked out and others went out in support. The management then locked out the entire factory for a week, with the exception of the storekeepers. When the management tried to do the stocktaking themselves the storekeepers walked out.

During the lock-out a meeting of ENV workers was organised at Hammersmith Town Hall with 800 workers attending. (However the following day, Saturday, when a march was held in Willesden only 14 people turned up, and these were mostly stewards.) At the Hammersmith meeting Birch and Cooley spoke, as well as the ENV stewards. A solicitor also explained that any strike action would not lead to loss of redundancy pay. The meeting supported the fight against redundancy and closure. The stewards had previously agreed that those workers who wanted to leave ENV should be allowed to go as this would make the rest of the factory stronger, but no vote was taken on this at the meeting.

But after the Hammersmith meeting, nothing happened. The men returned to work the following week. Resolutions for strike action at factory meetings were still turned down. Although various proposals for departmental strikes were discussed and sometimes agreed, they never came to anything. In the continued absence of any action from within the factory, the stewards attempted to get an official strike.

At the end of October the AEU District Committee took the rare step of calling for an official strike at ENV. However this had to be endorsed at the next AEU Executive meeting. When this took place Reg Birch moved that the North London District Committee’s decision be endorsed, but could not even get anyone to second the motion (Hugh Scanlon, who was at the meeting, just kept quiet.) So the official strike came to nothing at all. No attempt was made to strike in the few days before the EC met, since unfortunately the majority of the workers wanted to wait for the EC’s decision. Thus the chance for a strike was missed, although some of the stewards now think that the majority of the workers would have come out then. One difficulty was that it was getting near to Christmas and hence there was a greater unwillingness to strike. Quite a few of the workers could remember the long 1951-52 strike which began before Christmas.

In November the first group of workers were sacked. Each week more followed. A large number of stewards and other militants went in the first weeks, often in spite of their seniority. Early in the new year the management offered to make a deal with some of the remaining shop stewards, especially Carlsson. If they would get the workers to agree to the management proposals then they would not be sacked. This Carlsson insisted on reporting to a full factory meeting. The factory refused to make any deal of this sort. After this, both Carlsson and Mitchell were sacked.

It was now clear to everyone that the management’s only interest was in getting rid of the militants and then keeping the factory open. Soon after the sackings of Carlsson and Mitchell, they announced that ‘due to changed economic circumstances’ they would be keeping the factory open with a labour force of between 400 and 500. The workers who remained at ENV, however, stuck strongly to their earlier decisions and refused to make any concessions on pay or conditions. At the time of writing, eight months after the chairman and convenor were sacked, the management has still not succeeded in changing one agreement. The new ENV stewards, as we went to press, had just won back control over overtime at a Local Conference, where the management was forced to stand by the agreement that forces them to ask the shop stewards for permission before they could approach any worker to ask him to work overtime.

  1. Assessment of the Fight Against Closure

Once the ENV management had announced their intention of closing the factory, the problem that faced the shop stewards was that of finding some realistic way of opposing the management and carrying the men with them. It must be remembered that only a minority of the stewards – and an even smaller minority of the men – were convinced from the start that the management’s declaration of imminent closure was in fact a fraud. As we have seen, the men were already planning how they would spend their redundancy pay, and the stewards’ efforts to convince them that a strike would not affect their right to redundancy money were not entirely successful against a barrage of management propaganda.

In the period before the actual announcement of closure, the stewards, aware that a wholesale attack of some kind was about to be launched, followed a policy of ‘clearing the decks for action.’ They urged workers to settle outstanding departmental disputes in order to avoid giving management the opportunity to provoke a strike before they were ready or on an issue of management’s own choosing. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems perhaps that the management would not anyway have risked provoking a major stoppage at this stage, for they had not seriously begun to shift work from the Willesden factory elsewhere (indeed some sections of the factory remained busy throughout 1966 and 1967). At this stage it seems that the management’s hope was still that they would make some kind of breakthrough in the negotiations, through their attempt to divide the stewards from the rank and file by devices like the ballot. However one unfortunate result of the ‘clearing the decks’ policy was that some of the men, not fully realising the way that the management were shaping up for a major struggle, began to think that the stewards were ‘going soft’.

It has been suggested that during this period the stewards should have pursued a militant policy on all fronts and tried to secure a large-scale strike before the closure was announced, in order to keep the initiative. Some critics have condemned the ENV stewards for not turning the dispute into a major political campaign in the North London area. But this criticism ignores the current level of consciousness in the labour movement. Certainly any realistic review of .the movement’s experience over the past three years suggests that the formula, ‘incomes policy equals political struggle’ is quite wrong, over-simplified and Utopian. The campaigns which have been successful have depended on the presentation of issues in very low-level ‘trade union’ terms: the role of the State has been seen as an additional cause for working-class indignation, rather than as the central element in a larger pattern. Outsiders see only the abstract possibilities – down on the ground in North London, the real response of other workers looks quite different. Of course, this does not mean that every issue must be reduced to the lower common multiple. A campaign of solidarity must operate on at least two levels – aiming to rebuild, through activity in fragmented day-to-day struggles, a meaningful labour movement, and to re-group the existing militants and formulate a more coherent and revolutionary political programme.

If a campaign outside the factory was, in the concrete conditions of the moment, almost fruitless, the campaign among the workers within the factory was also difficult. For, although the stewards knew very well that a management offensive was imminent, it was not easy to communicate this general awareness to the men until the management showed its hand.

The actual announcement of closure quite seriously disoriented the stewards’ committee. For one thing, there seemed to be no precedent for this – how, after all, does one fight a closure? Furthermore, as we have already seen, it was only a minority of the stewards who believed that the management was bluffing. And in face of the management’s repeated insistence that it would be shutting up shop in Willesden (and for economic reasons not directly connected with the shop stewards) it was by no means easy to win the other stewards over to a realisation of the actual state of affairs. (We might add, too, that it is by no means impossible that if a more successful fight had been waged by the stewards the management would have closed the factory for a time.) The belief that the management were serious in their stated intentions was in fact not really dissipated until early 1967, by which time a number of stewards had already been ‘made redundant.’ It took the management’s offer of a ‘deal’ to Carlsson and Mitchell to convince even some of the most militant and ‘political’ spirits on the stewards’ committee.

Unless this background is understood, it is difficult to attempt a fair criticism of the policy of the leading stewards. They were, and through no fault of their own, faced with a situation of undoubted difficulty, being the only ones who saw even that a fight was necessary. There was by this time, it is true, an IS [International Socialists, pre-cursor organisation to the modern Socialist Workers party. Ed] factory branch with about 12 members, most of them stewards. This met fortnightly after work. But it would be a mistake to see this as a highly conscious organised group. Throughout the ‘fifties and early ‘sixties, Geoff Carlsson had been completely isolated politically in the factory. The bulk of the stewards had been members of the Communist Party or had accepted a Party lead, although disillusion had gradually been setting in. It was not until well into 1965 that it proved possible to recruit the militant stewards to IS. Inevitably, given the political histories of these comrades, the development of the branch had hardly begun when the attack came. In a very real sense, as one of the ex-CP stewards remarked, the IS branch ‘came too late.’ Partly as a result of this immaturity of the branch, the group did not act in a very organised way on the stewards’ committee.

Given the failure of their repeated attempts to get a majority of the workers voting for strike action (although the minority in favour grew steadily) the question that arises is whether a minority or departmental strike of some kind was possible. In the past, faced with different circumstances, the stewards had encouraged the development of a tradition at ENV of abiding always by majority decisions. This stress on factory democracy – by no means present in all ‘militant’ factories – was of course very valuable. This kind of democratic procedure is particularly well fitted to a situation where workers and stewards are on the offensive, for then the more advanced can afford to wait for the more backward to catch up. In a defensive struggle, whose terms are set by the management, however, an unwillingness to lead, even from a minority position, is a definite weakness. And it is on these grounds that we feel the ENV stewards were open to criticism.

In a real sense, the stewards lost the initiative. It is not for us, at this remove, to specify that on such and such an occasion they ought to have pursued a particular line of action. What we do feel, however, is that they should have done something. Various suggestions have been made, from a ‘sit-in’ by the militants to a departmental walk-out. And many ideas were discussed by the stewards, but in each case they seem to have weighed the advantages to such a degree that they partially paralysed themselves. They were – quite rightly – afraid of being ‘adventuristic,’ but adventurism is better than nothing. In a way, the stewards’ legitimate fear of substituting themselves for the majority of the workers was, we feel, carried too far. Action cannot be determined mechanically by the existing level of consciousness; a spark of action could, perhaps, have altered the workers’ consciousness too. The stewards had a large fund of goodwill that they could rely on, and they should have risked more than they did. At the most general level, they saw only that substitutionism was a danger, but did not see that the theory of substitutionism (with which IS has often been identified) implies no rejection of the need for leadership. [2]

Would they have been defeated anyway? Almost certainly. But for socialists and militants this is not the sole question. What was sad about the defeat at ENV was that it was so quiet. For the stewards to go down without a fight was to miss the opportunity to generate any kind of campaign that could assist in the further linking of the militants in the engineering industry. Even if for example the pickets on the Myton and Sunley sites in London go down in defeat (as seems sadly probable at the time of writing), other militants in the building industry will have gained from their struggle, and from the solidarity movement that was built around it.

At the same time, the extent of the failure should not be exaggerated. An employer can be defeated fifty times, and he will still be there. A stewards’ committee cannot survive one major defeat. And in no sense was it a ‘sell-out.’ No concessions were made to management. Even today, fifteen months after the management’s final attack began, none has been made. One worker, still at the factory in October 1967, was amazed at the very idea that there had been a defeat: ‘We’ve never given them anything!’

And the positive elements remain. For years ENV provided a powerful instance of the possibilities of strong factory organisation. And it was, in a very real sense, the centre of militancy in North London engineering. Its defeat, as other militants in the area recognise, was a serious loss. The memory of the years of the struggle at ENV will serve for some time to come as an example to all those who are involved in the struggle for workers’ control and a new socialist movement. The unhappy manner of the final defeat should not be allowed to obscure that.

Footnotes

  1. This kind of division among the Communist Party’s industrial membership in the engineering industry undoubtedly played an important part in the development of the later split in the Party’s ranks over the question of the AEU Presidential election, the Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee and ultimately the expulsion of Reg Birch from the Party.
  2. See T. Cliff, The Revolutionary Party and the Class: Trotsky on Substitutionism, IS 2, Autumn 1960.

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past tense note:

NB: Regarding the question raised in the final section, Assessment of the Fight Against Closure,how, after all, does one fight a closure?” it is interesting that at this point factory occupations by workers as an attempt to prevent closures had not yet come to the fore. Occupations were to be a major tactic in the 1970s and into the early 1980s. Here’s one account of such an occupation only five years after ENV, at Briant Colour Printing

Today in London radical history, 1771: an informer who sent insurgent silkweavers to the gallows killed in community punishment, Bethnal Green

On 16th April 1771, Daniel Clarke, a pattern drawer in the silk weaving trade, was chased by a crowd through the streets of Spitalfields, & then stoned to death in the Hare Street Pond. This came some 15 months after he had testified in the trial of silk weavers accused of being involved in organised sabotage and intimidation in a work dispute against their employers. The shocked reaction of the authorities to Clarke’s death was mirrored by a feeling among some East End locals that Clarke had deserved his fate. The incident was only the latest twist in a long-running war that had erupted into regular violence and brought the army onto the streets of the East End.

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The Work of the Weavers

As previously related on this blog, the silk weavers of Spitalfields, in London’s East End, fought a long volatile and violent class war against wage cuts, mechanisation and ‘dilution’ of skilled work, a struggle that lasted a century and a half. While it broke out sporadically between (roughly) the 1670s and the 1820s, the most intense battles were fought throughout the 1760s. The disputes were sparked by attempts by employers to reduce wages and pay rates, and organised attempts by their journeymen to maintain or raise them. The war came to a head as groups of ‘cutters’ came together to target wage-slashing masters, extending a campaign of threats, intimidation and assault to workers who worked for lower rates – such breaking ranks threatened the livelihoods of all by undermining the solidarity the journeymen weavers were trying to build.

The ‘cutters’ were so-nicknamed one of their favoured tactic was to slash silk on the loom, rendering the normally high-value fabric worthless. The silk-weaving trade was mostly conducted through home-work – weavers took silk belonging to a master to their homes, which doubled as workshops, and wove it there, and were paid by the piece finished. This method of mostly artisan production was, by the 1760s, beginning to evolve into a larger-scale more factory-based system, but in London’s East End, silkweaving was very much a complex mesh of self-employment, patronage, and interwoven relationships of work, friendship, and community. Journeymen could rise to be masters; though most did not. Attempts to replace long-established skilled work with more mechanised production methods that enabled hiring weavers at lower pay had been going on for a century, constantly resisted by a self-consciously skilled and sometimes well-paid workforce determined to extract the maximum from their labour (partly because periodic trade slumps and cloth imports made their position not always secure).
This situation was further complicated by the increase in middlemen and agents interposing themselves between workers and masters, a bit like the employment agencies of today, though often emerging from the ranks of the silk weavers themselves.

Like the later Luddites of the midlands and the north, the weavers’ battle to defend their livelihoods consistently involved collective violence; and like them, was viciously repressed by the authorities, who in the main lined up behind the master weavers. But the silkweavers’ struggles were complex and contradictory: sometimes they were battling their employers and sometimes co-operating with them; to some extent they won more concessions than their northern counterparts, holding off mechanisation for a century, and maintaining some control over their wages and conditions, at least for a while.

After decades of skirmishing over prices, by the 1760s tensions between masters and workers had grown to eruption point. Dissatisfaction over pay among journeymen silkweavers was increasing; a slump in the trade partly caused by smuggling had left 7,072 looms were out of employment. In 1762, the journeymen wrote a Book of Prices, in which they recorded the piecework rates they were prepared to work for (an increase on current rates in most cases). They had the Book printed up and delivered to the masters – who rejected it. Increasingly masters were turning to machine looms, and hiring the untrained, sometimes women and children, to operate them, in order to bypass the journeyman and traditional apprentices and their complex structure of pay and conditions.

As a result of the rejection of the Book, two thousand weavers assembled and began to break up looms and destroy materials, and went on strike.

There followed a decade of struggle by weavers against their masters, with high levels of violence on both sides. Tactics included threatening letters to employers, stonings, sabotage, riots and ‘skimmingtons’ (mocking community humiliation of weavers working below agreed wage levels: offenders were mounted on an ass backwards & driven through the streets, to the accompaniment of ‘rough music’ played on pots and pans). The battle escalated to open warfare, riots, attacks on the houses of wealthy silk masters and politicians and justices seen as instituting repression against the weavers’ combinations or passing laws that threatened their position. As well as huge unruly demonstrations, secret subversive clubs of weavers were organised to conduct sabotage, and intimidate wage-breakers and employers. These were often run from the taverns of Spitalfields, Shoreditch and Bethnal Green where weavers gathered and drank (many trades were effectively organised through such establishments, which doubled as community centres, meeting places and union halls).

One committee allegedly called the Bold Defiance, (or Conquering and Bold Defiance, or the Defiance Sloop), who met at the Dolphin Tavern. The Bold Defiance started raising a fighting funds for their dispute, as part of which they attempted to levy a tax on anyone who owned or worked a loom. Their methods of fund-raising bordered, shall we say, on extortion, expressed in the delivery to silk weaving masters of Captain Swing-style notes: “Mr Hill, you are desired to send the full donation of all your looms to the Dolphin in Cock Lane. This from the conquering and bold Defiance to be levied four shillings per loom.” 

The violence of the weavers’ agitation through 1762-8 led to the army being sent in to occupy the Spitalfields area several times, and to an Act of Parliament being passed in 1765, declaring it to be a felony and punishable with death, to break into any house or shop with intent maliciously to damage or destroy any silk goods in the process of manufacture. This law was to be used with devastating effect four years later.

In the Summer of 1769, some of the masters attempted to force a cut in rates of pay, further inflaming the situation.

Summer of ’69

One major silk boss threatened by the cutters was Lewis Chauvet, a master on an increasing scale. Chauvet had set up a factory for silk production, which stood in Crispin Street, Spitalfields. A leading manufacturer of silk handkerchiefs, who had already been involved in bitter battles against striking weavers in Dublin, Chauvet banned his workers from joining the weavers’ clubs or paying any levies, and organised a private guard on his looms.
Through the summer of 1769, cutters’ groups gathered in large numbers and visited workers weaving Chauvet’s silk, both to destroy their work, and to ask for contributions to the fighting fund. Fights broke out.

On the night of Thursday 17th August, cutters assembled in gangs and went to the homes of Chauvet’s workers, cutting the silk out of more than fifty looms. Four nights later, on Monday 21st, and in even greater numbers, cutters slashed the silk off more than a hundred looms. Throughout the month, the streets of Spitalfields resounded to the noise of pistols being fired in the air. Chauvet was eventually forced to pay a levy to the cutters to prevent further sabotage…

But he also advertised a reward of £500 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. But for several weeks the people of Spitalfields remained silent, from solidarity, because they did not wish to give evidence that might send a man to the gallows, or from fear of reprisals from the cutters. The atmosphere had become bitter, rife with confused anger and rumour – weaver against weaver. People who lived cheek-by-jowl and worked together were at odds; weavers who had accepted lower rates of pay or worked for masters like Chauvet were seen as scabs by others. Many who had no time for employers breaking wage rates were unnerved and scared by the vehemence of the cutters and their tactics; on the flipside, many who would not normally have endorsed law-breaking felt informing on their neighbours and their fellow weavers was beyond the pale. Everyone knew that the harsh penal code meant workers ‘combining’ for any aim of maintaining wages or work conditions was illegal, and that going disguised to intimidate or sabotage was a capital offence. Whether they approved of the cutters’ methods or not, many would not have dobbed them in. And given the closeness of the communities, many would have known who was doing what.

And community anger against informants was also a powerful and widely shared element of the social code, and this rage was often acted on, and violently – as we shall see.

Poor Show

However, on the 26th September 1769, a minor master weaver, Thomas Poor, and his wife Mary, swore in front of a magistrate that a few weeks before in early August, their seven looms, in their home in ‘Stocking-frame Alley’ in Shoreditch, had been slashed by a group of cutters. Thomas and Mary Poor swore these men had come to their home/workshop about eleven at night and slashed to ribbons silk they had been weaving, belonging to Joseph Horton.

Altogether they identified seven men – John Doyle, Bill Duff, Joe Colman, (known as Jolly Dog,) Andrew Mahoney, Thomas Pickles, William Horsford  and John Valloine. All of these men had been known to the Poors beforehand for several years; as must have been common in the tightly knit communities where people worked with and for each other, often out of their own homes.

However, before giving evidence the couple had inquired with Lewis Chauvet about receiving the reward he had offered – and Doyle had already been arrested by the time they went to the magistrates. Possibly the Poors may have been prompted to name men already marked down as agitators… The accused were arrested, protesting their innocence of the sabotage. other men who worked for the Poors and had been present said they could not identify the men, as it had been almost pitch black when the incident took place.

Four days later, on 30 September, after a tip off from a master weaver who had had the squeeze put on him, magistrates, Bow St Runners and troops raided the Bold Defiance’ HQ at the Dolphin Tavern, finding the cutters assembled in an upstairs room, armed, and “receiving the contributions of terrified manufacturers.” A firefight started between the weavers and the soldiers and runners, which left two weavers (including a bystander) and a soldier dead; but the cutters escaped through the windows and over rooves. Four weavers who were drinking in the pub downstairs, and one found in bed upstairs were arrested, and held for a few weeks; though no-one was brought to court over the deaths.

However, Valloine and Doyle were convicted of the attack on the Poor’s looms and sentenced to death under the 1765 Act, despite very dubious identification evidence. They were hanged on the 6th December 1769, at corner of Bethnal Green Road and Cambridge Heath Road opposite the Salmon and Ball pub. Though Tyburn was the usual place of execution, the major silk manufacturers pressured the authorities to have them ‘scragged’ locally; this was often done in an area seen as troublesome or crime-ridden, to put the fear onto others who might be thinking of breaking the law. The aim here was to overawe the rebellious weavers and intimidate them into backing down on their agitations.

Initially this attempt at a show of state force looked like it might backfire. An organised attempt to free the two was planned, and the men building the gallows were attacked with stones:

“There was an inconceivable number of people assembled, and many bricks, tiles, stones &c thrown while the gallows was fixing, and a great apprehension of a general tumult, notwithstanding the persuasion and endeavours of several gentlemen to appease the same. The unhappy sufferers were therefore obliged to be turned off before the usual time allowed on such occasions, which was about 11 o’clock; when, after hanging about fifty minutes they were cut down and delivered to their friends.”

Doyle and Valloine died proclaiming themselves not guilty of the silk cutting in question. After their execution an enraged crowd tore down the gallows, rebuilt them in front of Chauvet’s factory in Crispin Street, a clear threat to the man many saw as responsible for the two weavers’ deaths. An estimated 5,000 people gathered, smashing the windows of Chauvet’s premises and burning some of his furniture.

On the day the hanging took place, William Eastman, William Horsford and John Carmichael went on trial. Horsford had also been implicated by the Poors in their evidence; however, Daniel Clarke, another Irish silk pattern drawer and small employer, had claimed Eastman, had slashed his work in a similar attack; Clarke had also received money from Lewis Chauvet’s reward to give evidence against him.

Clarke had already made himself unpopular with the East End weavers’ community, having previously tried to undercut collectively agreed wage rates. He had possibly also informed or given evidence against insurgent weavers before, in his native Dublin: a letter sent from weavers in Dublin to ‘The Committee of Silk Weavers London in London’ in 1768 refers to a Dan Clarke as an ‘ignorant master’, calling him a ‘cat’s-paw’ who had been ‘villain enough to swear false’. Chauvet also had been operating looms in Dublin and come up against organized workers there – whether Clarke and he had had a previous association there, and if this relates to the Dubliners’ accusations against ‘Dan Clarke’, is unclear.

Cutters had by Clarke’s account broken into his home and cut silk from his looms on 11 September 1769.  Although Clarke had originally told friends that he couldn’t identify the men who’d cut his silk, after contacting Lewis Chauvet, his memory miraculously altered; medical experts say being offered large sums of money can have that effect. Clark changed his story, identifying the men who sabotaged his weaving as being part of a weavers’ combination organised out of the Red Lion Tavern, including William Eastman, locally thought to be the chairman of one of the cutters’ committees, and one Philip Gosset. It is possible Eastman, as a local cutters’ leader or organiser, was present at Clarke’s on the night in question, or it may be that he was an agitator that that Chauvet simply wanted out of the way. Philip Gosset, however, was never caught.

The evidence against Eastman, Carmichael and Horsford was contradictory and confused; but this was relatively unimportant when severe examples needed to be made to cow the rebellious workers. Protests, a weavers’ march on Parliament to ask for pardon, all fell on deaf ears. This time, though, afraid of the local reaction after the riots that followed the deaths of Doyle and Valloine, the authorities made sure the three were executed outside the area. They were hanged at Tyburn on 20th December 1769.

Although the reaction to Doyle and Valloine’s hanging had been fierce, the vicious repression did in fact have its intended effect for a while. The cutters’ acts of sabotage largely stopped and the wage agitations died down for a couple of years.

But the bitter dispute and the rage fanned up by the hangings, perceived as a burning injustice locally, still had a twist to throw up. Fifteen months later, revenge would be taken against at least one informant whose testimony had made sure that the weavers would be convicted.

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The Hare Street Pond

On 16th April 1771, Daniel Clarke, the grass who had sent William Eastman to the gallows, was spotted walking along Norton Folgate; a crowd quickly gathered, which seems to have mainly consisted of women and boys; among them Anstis Horsford, the widow of William Horsford. The crowd chased Clarke through Spitalfields streets, and, after some attempts to take refuge failed, he was finally caught, and dunked in the Hare Street Pond, a flooded gravel pit in Bethnal Green. The crowd stoned and abused him, and soon after they let him out of the pond, he collapsed and died.

Benjamin West, a weaver of Fleet Street, gave evidence later that: “Clarke the deceased used to draw patterns for me: I saw him about twelve o’clock, the day he was killed, at his own house; he was coming with me up Half Nichols street, Spital-fields, to look at some work; we were attacked by two men, the people increased very fast; they called after him, ” There goes Clarke, that blood-selling rascal” or to that effect; he turned round to speak to them, and expostulated with them; I told him he had better come along; they threw stones at him; after he had turned up a little street, I saw two men knocking him down; we ran; I did not look behind me till I saw him upon the ground, after I came into Cock-lane.

Q: Which way did you run?

West. Strait forward; he turned up a little turning which leads into Cock lane: I saw him upon the ground: then he and I went different ways.

Q: But the way he and you went, both came into the same street again?

West. Yes, in Cock-lane; there I saw him down, with his hat and wig off.

Q: Was nobody with him when you saw him down?

West. I saw two or three men: I saw one man kicking him: I cannot tell what kind of a man he was; I saw Clarke get up, and he ran into Mrs. Snee’s house: that is all I saw of him; then I came away.

Q: Did they follow him to Mrs. Snee’s house?

West. I saw several people about the place.

Q: Where did you go?

West. I went to his house, and told the person he lived with, which I understand now is not his wife; that he was at Mrs. Snee’s, that he had been attacked and lost his wig: I desired her to take him a wig.

Q: Did you desire her to carry any thing else to him?

West. I told her I thought it would be necessary to take his pistols, for fear he should be attacked again; he was desired by the justices to carry pistols in his pocket, for fear of being attacked.

Q: Did any of the stones hit him?

West. I cannot say.

Q: What o’clock was it then?

West. Between twelve and one.

Q: What time was from the time he was attacked till you went off?

West. Not above half an hour.

Q: What kind of weather was it, that day?

West. Scorching weather, afterwards I fancy it rained.

Q: What o’clock might it be?

West. Near one: it was half past twelve when we left his house.

Mary Snee . I live in Cock-lane.

Q: You knew Clarke, I believe?

Snee. Yes; I had seen him five times.

Q: Do you remember his coming to your house?

Snee. Yes.

Q: What time was that?

Snee. I thought about twelve; my people tell me it was about one.

Q: Was your door open?

Snee. He opened my latch and ran in he was bloody: he was cut over his eyes, and had no wig on; I said Lord have mercy upon me what is the matter Mr. Clarke: he said, I beset; I said who has beset you? know says he: he walked about the house, we gave him water and washed him, he said when he came in,

“Lock the door, for God’s lock the door.” I did, and shut the inside shutters of my windows: he was very disconsolate. After he had been there some time, he desired me to send for his wife: he said, “this is the finishing stroke; this crowns “the work:” he desired me to send for his wife, for he had no wig, he asked me to let my daughter bring his pistols: my daughter went and met Mrs. Clarke coming in Shoreditch with his pistols; she brought them, he desired her to go back and fetch him a wig, and bring his powder box with his gun powder, which she did.

Q: How long was she before she returned again?

Snee. Half an hour, to be sure.

Q: In the mean time did you hear any noise at your door?

Snee. Yes, now and then; but they turned down the corner of the streets; and our door was pretty clear when she came the last time.

Q: Before that, did the people call out?

Snee. Yes; several times, they peeped thro’ the window and said,

“D – n him, there he is: turn him out, let us hang him, or burn him, or any thing, let us do something with him.”

Q: When the wife came, it was pretty quiet then?

Snee. Yes; and he came out then with his hands one in one pocket and the other in the other, upon his pistols; he went out with his wife.

Q: How long was he in the house, in the whole?

Snee. Upwards of an hour.

Q: Then he and his wife went out together?

Snee. Yes, and a little boy; they went a little way, not half a stone’s throw, and when the mob saw the corners of the streets beset they came running round him; I was at my own door, I saw a great mob, then he run back again.

Q: With his wife and boy?

Snee. No; they came back no more.

Q: I suppose that was but a few minutes after they had left your house?

Snee. Yes, a very few minutes; then he stood at my door, he took his pistols out; a fellow coming up to him, he said, “I will shoot you,” the fellow took his stick and held it up to his face, and said, “D – n you do.” Mr. Clarke could not let the pistol’s off, so he pushed into the house, and I shut the door and locked it.

Q: How many people might there be then?

Snee. I do not know; a great number of people.

Q: Were there some hundreds?

Snee. There were I believe, a hundred; I said, for God’s sake what must I do; the outside shutters were not shut at all; they throwed a great brickbat at the door, and when they had done that, they throwed another and broke four panes of glass and the frame, and all of the windows. They said, “D – n him, turn him out, and they would hang him, or burn him, or drown him, or do something or other to him; d – n him turn him out;” I asked Mr. Clarke whether he knowed them or not, that beset him, he said no I don’t, but I know them that does. They kept knocking and beating at the door and window, I did not know what to do; he said, “For God’s sake do not open the door;” then he asked me if I had any cellar; I said, yes; he went down into the wash house, and then down into the cellar; when he was in the cellar, I opened the door, one of the fellows came in; as soon as he came in he pushed into the kitchen to me, and said, “D – n you, where is he.” I said he is not here.

Q: Look at the prisoners and recollect if you saw either of them there?

Snee. No; I was in a great fright.

Q: How came you to open the door?

Snee. I opened it to let a friend in; I thought he was a pretty safe in the cellar; the man ran up stairs and met my daughter and said, “D – n my blood, if I don’t kill all in the house if they don’t find him; “my daughter said, as I hope to be saved, he is not up stairs; (for he was then in the cellar;) he saw my daughter go over a garden wall, which put him in mind to do so; the poor creature heard the man swear he would kill all in the house. While he was in the kitchen, the deceased came out and got over the wall. Then they called out in the street, “There he goes, there he runs;” then they left me, and run out into the garden.

Q: That is not a garden belonging to your house, I believe?

Snee. No; a great garden, belonging to a gardener; they all ran after him.

Q: Did they go over the wall too?

Snee. There is gates and places; they can go every way from the street.

Q: Did you hear a pistol go off after this?

Snee. I did not; I was so frightened I heard nothing more.

Q: How long had he been in your house; you say the first time he was in your house, about an hour; how long was it from the time he first came into your house, till he got over the wall?

Snee. About an hour, or upwards.

Q: Then the hour includes the whole time from his coming into your house till he finally went away?

Snee. Yes.

John Marsh of Norton Folgate “had just dined and heard an extraordinary noise, which occasioned me to look out of my window; there I saw a man, which they tell me, was Clarke; I saw him at the corner of White Lyon street, at Mr. Woodrow’s corner, surrounded by a number of people; I saw nobody strike him then; I went to my other window, and there I saw a man with a whip, like a carman’s whip, there was a circle of people; I suppose the man was under; I saw the whip up several times; it seemed to strike at some object below, that I could not see; but it was within a few yards of where I had seen Clarke before; I saw no more…”

Another Norton Folgate resident, Thomas Gibson, also observed Clarke being mobbed:

“he went and stood up at the corner, going to White Lyon-street, with his back against the wall; he dropt with his back-side upon the ground; a man came by with a dray, and said, Clear the way; he took a whip and began whipping of him.

Q: How long did he whip him?

Gibson. Perhaps a minute; I went away to my shop; I work in Blossom-street: he got up, how I know not; I lost fight of him then, I got fight of him again in about four or five minutes, in Wheeler-street, the next street to White Lyon-street; the people were pursuing him; they had got him up in a corner and were throwing dirt at him, and striking him, that was about one hundred yards from White-Lyon-street; then they went away down Quaker-street with him; he never seemed to try to get away, but seemed to go with them; he was in the middle of a great number of people: about the middle of Quaker’s-street somebody came and gave him a blow, and said, D – n your blood: and Clarke fell down. I followed him to the Broad way.

Q: What was done there?

Gibson. He kept going before the mob; I saw nobody meddle with him there; he was before that in a very deplorable condition; his head was bloody: then they went to Hare-street: he was going down Hare-street; somebody came and asked me what was the matter; I stopped to tell him it was Clarke: they stopped him against the brew-house; there they stripped him; it is about the middle of Hare-street; I cannot say how much they stripped him; he had his breeches and stockings; then they went into the field, called, Hare-street field, that is at the end of Hare-street: I went into Hare-street field with the mob: when he came into Hare-street field , whether they knocked him down, or kicked him down, I cannot say, but he was down, and they were beating him upon the ground while he was down; some got hold of his legs; some his arms, and they dragged him along upon the ground; then they said, “We will throw him into a pond, or a ditch;” one said, This is not deep enough; and another, This is not deep enough: at last they carried him into the Brick-field, where there is a pond, occasioned by digging out the bricks.

Q: What did they do with him then?

Gibson. They forced him into the water; whether they thrust him in by the back, or took hold of him by the arms, I cannot say.

Q: What distance might you be?

Gibson. One hundred yards, or farther.

Q: What number of people might be gathered together at this time.

Gibson. There might be two or three thousand; there were people out of number.

Q: How long did you stay after he was shoved into the pond?

Gibson. Till the very last of all. They kept pelting him with earth and brick-bats, and any thing they met with whilst he was in the water.

Q: How deep was this pond?

Gibson. Where he stood he seemed to be about three feet in the water: whether he stood, or kneeled down in the water, I cannot say.

Q: How high did the water come?

Gibson. About the middle of his belly.

Q: What kind of weather was this?

Gibson. It snowed at times as fast as I ever saw it in my life.

Q: How long did he continue in this pond?

Gibson. It was a considerable time; half an hour, or three quarters.”

Gibson and others pulled Clarke from the pond, but this was only a temporary respite:

“I got hold of him; we dragged him four or five yards from the place; some of them said, He is one of his confederates or some such word, and pushed the man in and all; and they were going to push me in with him; I slipped away at a distance from the mob; some advised me to go home, and said I should get myself ill used; but I staid.

Q: Where was Clark at this time?

Gibson. About nine or ten yards from the water.

Q: In what condition?

Gibson. He was down upon the sand-heap, and they were throwing sand on the top of him.

Q: How long did this treatment continue upon the sand?

Gibson. It might be a quarter of an hour, or twenty minutes.

Q: What became of him at the end of this quarter of an hour, or twenty minutes?

Gibson. They made a sort of a hallo themselves, and then they came and throwed him into the water again.

Q: How high was the water then?

Gibson. He was crawling like upon his hands and knees, at times, striving to keep himself from drowning; they kept throwing brickbats and stones at him; brickbats were the chief; there was not many stones; I saw half a brick, as it appeared to me, come and strike him on the left side of his temple, and the blood poured out as fast as if he had been pricked with a lancet, and the water was discoloured with the blood.

Q: Did you observe Clarke do or say any thing?

Gibson. He put his hand upon his head, and wiped the blood off and said, “Oh, gentlemen, you use me cruelly:” I went to get to the side of him to try to get him out of the water, but could not find any body to help me. Somebody cried, By and by; here is Justice Fielding’s people coming; with that they drawed back. Somebody said, No, it is not; it is the keeper or White chapel prison. I saw a man coming, a turnkey, or something belonging to the prison; then they drawed back; there was another man there, one Clarke; I asked him to help me to get the man out of the water; he was going to take hold of him; Clarke refused him; whether he thought he was going to push him in further or no, I do not know; but we got him out the second time; that Clarke is a fisherman.

Q: When you had taken him out of the pond, what happened then?

Gibson. We got him out of the pond five or six yards, I put him down upon the ground; he got up upon his backside; there I left him; I got away from him; by and by I came up to him again; I think he was leaning down upon his elbow, sitting upon one side; somebody said, Get him to an hospital; I said, It is impossible without a coach; I will assist for one; I left him: soon after somebody came up again, and said, He is dead; I said, How can that be, I saw him just now.

Q: Did he speak after you took him out the second time?

Gibson. I don’t remember hearing him speak.

Q: Did he groan?

Gibson. No; I thought he seemed pretty hearty.

Q: How were his eyes?

Gibson. He was pretty full in the eyebrows; his eyes were considerably swelled.

Q: Could he see?

Gibson. I did not perceive but that he could; I got in between the mob again, and looked, and then he was laying straight upon the ground, with both hands out; I stood awhile, and saw him fetch breath: the mob were very strong; I got away again; I could not stand it: somebody cried out afterwards, He is dead: when I went to look again, I saw he was dead; we drawed him away from there to the sand house.

Q: How long was it after he came out of the pond the second time that you observed he was dead?

Gibson. I cannot tell; but it must be after four o’clock.”

According to Francis Clarke, another witness, Daniel Clarke tried at the last to suggest the real villain was Lewis Chauvet, and that he would say nothing to the authorities if the crowd would let him go. Not unreasonably, given his record, the mob refused to believe him:

“Q: When he was pulled out where did they take him to?

Clarke. They left him near the side of the pond, about six feet off.

Q: it was at that time the people talked to him about hanging the cutters?

Clarke. Yes, and about Chevat; he made answer and said, Chevat is worse than me.

Q: Did they talk to him about any body else.

Clarke. He said, “Let me go home, for God’s sake; I will freely forgive you:” some of them said, “D – n you, you said you would swear against twenty.” Some of them said that to enrage the people the more, I believe; he said he would freely forgive them if they would let him go home, and shook his head; some of them d – d and cursed him; very saw was for him; all the mob were against him; I heard very saw people that were pitying of him; they said, “He was a very bad man, and would swear peoples lives away.”

Francis Clarke also alleged that Anstis Horsford had called out “Clarke, Clarke, I am left a widow, my child is fatherless on account of you, and more of your companions” and calling him to him ‘like a vengeful spirit; while he stood naked in the pond, asking him “Do you remember poor William Eastman?”

As with many community punishments there’s a feeling of a ritual element to the attack on Clarke; the questioning of him as he was being dunked evokes cross-examination in a trial setting; the dunking in water itself brings to mind the older ducking of scolds or witches. Whipping him through the streets and making him wear a halter around his neck were also legal punishments designed to humiliate an offender, engage the community in joining in chastising transgressors, and warn others. Self-consciously or sub-consciously, collective actions often adopt ritual elements – sometimes drawn from law, religion, even theatre; because people are looking for a form that legitimises their actions? Gives them a meaning they can get their heads around? Just because memory brings forward what you’ve known and seen? All of the above, mingled together, probably…

Revenge which the law would not admit of

In Spitalfields the killing of Clarke was clearly seen, at least by some, as community justice. Local Magistrate David Wilmot put out adverts asking for information on who had been involved in the attack on Clarke. The first response was not quite as hoped: Wilmot received a series of threatening letters. A missive dated 17 April signed ‘one of ten thousand’ informed the justice that ‘the fellow we kill’d on Tuesday swore away the life of my dearest friend and if he had a thousand lives I would with pleasure have taken them.’ It also suggested Wilmot, his home and family would be targeted if he pursued the case. A later letter (dated 21 April) firmly set the ‘lynching’ of Clarke in a context of a community morality which did not exactly line up fully with morality and law as imposed by the state, expressing the view that the crowd had ‘taken that just revenge which the law would not admit of [against] that detestable late object [Clarke] who was thirsting after their blood not thro’ any motive of justice but merely for reward.’

Informing for a reward was widely detested, especially among the poorer classes, most likely to be at the sharp end, but in fact, this sentiment extended to various levels of society. This alternative morality expressed both a sense of solidarity – there was nothing in fact wrong with what the accused were doing, or if there was, death was too severe a punishment – but also a practical objection – paying for information leads to people lying, for the money. This problem was not unique to late-18th century East London, and alternative moralities which reject grasses are alive and well… Whether punitive action is then taken against informers tends to vary. In eighteenth century London, the lively plebeian culture included a general willingness of large numbers to come out and take part in riots, disturbances and unruly activity, to try to achieve results that weren’t available to most of them through legal means. Large swathes of society saw nothing wrong in this, so long as it chimed with some form of consensus of what was right and what was wrong. So seizing consignments of food being sold at high prices during food shortages/had harvests, and ensuring it was sold at a more affordable price, was widely accepted as socially just, by all except those profiting from it. Action against informers may have a much less wide groundswell of support, but a substantial social base saw nothing immoral about having a go at someone who had given evidence that had led men to be executed – certainly, as in this case, where the hanged had proclaimed the evidence false and money had changed hands.

Obviously, however, the official ‘justices’ had to squash another blatant challenge to law and order: culprits had to be fund and severely dealt with. Despite the threats, names were named and fingers were pointed. two more weavers, Henry Stroud – William Eastman’s brother in law – and Robert Campbell, together with William Horsford’s widow, Anstis, were arrested by Wilmot, and charged with murdering Clarke. Campbell was held to be the man who had ducked Clarke and held his head under water. Stroud was identified as one of the crowd; witnesses claimed he had pelted Clarke with half bricks while he was in the pond.

Witnesses had to be bribed to testify, however. Those who gave evidence against the three at the trial were all paid; Francis Clarke, a fruiterer, and Sarah Scales admitted they had been paid a total of £80 to give evidence against Campbell. Joseph Chambers, David Higgins and William Watts identified Stroud; all were forced to concede that they had done so with the promise of sharing a £100 reward. Constable John Pagett also openly hinted he had been paid to testify. Reading the trial transcripts, it seems fairly clear that blatant bribery was at work: the accused were in the frame and no expense would be spared to convict them. As so often was when the justice system was loaded against the plebs, and money talked (how things have changed… wait…er…)

Campbell and Stroud were found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged on July 8th, 1771. Once again, local punishment was deemed necessary to overawe the uppity weavers, and they were stretched at the scene of the crime, in Hare Street.

Anstis Horsford, however, disappears from view here; it is possible she received a lesser sentence than execution; or was executed but not so publicly; maybe she was maybe even acquitted. Frustratingly, the records seem to dry up.

As had taken place when Doyle and Valloine were executed, the hanging of Campbell and Stroud provoked a violent emotion locally, though reports are contradictory about whether there was similar trouble or not. A hundred soldiers had to be posted to ensure the hanging took place.

As noted above, the repression of the cutters contributed to a lull in the silkweavers’ struggles for a while. Attempts were also made by magistrates to prevent more disorder by suggesting that masters keep to the wage agreements and listing the going rates for weavers’ work; a further agitation in 1773 (after some masters again tried to break these rates) led to this being codified and set into law. A series of Spitalfields Acts set out the agreed rate and also the punishments for masters or journeymen who tried to break them – up or down. The Acts largely kept the peace and ensured peaceful wage negotiations, until they were repealed in the 1820s, though they also hobbled weavers’ self-organisation.

Questions of Violence

The collective violence involved the silkweavers’ many disputes is hardly unique; this kind of collective bargaining by riot has not died away in our own times. In the 1760s the law was overwhelmingly and blatantly loaded in favour of the propertied classes, and without money or property your chances in the legal system were slim. Organising trade unions or any kind of ‘combination’ to even ask for higher wages or better conditions were illegal. Any attempt at getting together was by default outside the law, and the law was not only for sale to the highest bidder, but its higher echelons were by definition men of property, who stuck by their own.

Elsewhere we have written about the different kinds of physical force employed in disputes around Spitalfields silkweaving in the eighteenth century.

  • Disputes that engaged the rank and file of the weavers – in alliance with the masters, for instance against imports of cheap cloth; demonstrating and rioting with the tacit approval of their bosses, a cross-class industry-wide unity (an example being the Calico Riots of 1719-20, more on which we will publish in June)
  • The type of full-scale warfare AGAINST the masters described above
  • By the 1760s yet a third struggle emerges, as groups of workers start to fight between themselves, machine loom weavers against hand loom weavers.

If at some points employers were willing to back journeymen weavers’ violence and identify themselves as having interests in common (in defence of the East End whole silkweaving trade), this didn’t prevent them from shafting their workers when felt it was in their interests.

It’s worth remembering that the silk trade consisted of many different levels of manufacture; there were many small masters, operating just above the journeymen, sub-contracting for larger manufacturers like Chauvet. As with many craft-based trades from the middle ages to the nineteenth century, there also existed a mechanism for apprentices to rise to become small or even larger masters, through the recognised structures, which could complicate any naïve vision of a simple division of class interests. Sometimes small masters like Thomas Poor could be virtually united with a mass of journeymen, later they were driven by class struggle and the increasing bitterness of the 1760s into collusion with the major employers.

The masters’ drive to cut wages, notably through mechanisation, was partly driven by the need to reduce costs, itself stimulated by the strength of the weavers’ organisations and their preparedness to use force, and by the widespread resistance to work in the form of absenteeism. A further incentive was the increasing threat to their profits coming from silk and other fine cloth smuggling, which had reached a chronic scale: lowering wages and production costs through mechanisation was seen as a way to undercut the cheaper smuggled cloths, since protectionism and legislation was failing.

For the journeymen’s part, willingness to front for the masters on the one hand didn’t blind some of them to the fundamental difference in their interests; the emergence of cutters’ groups like the Bold Defiance shows their were elements capable and prepared to take defence of what they saw as their interests to fantastic levels.

If some cutters’ groups had drifted from collecting contributions to pay for organising costs, into extortion and intimidation? The suggestion that a violent and extreme minority are forcing other workers into supporting rebellious action by force is part of the armoury of your daily mails etc when ranting about any strike. These foaming mouths never reckon the violence done on the other side, or the processes of coercion by which poverty, the factory system, submission to dehumanising work are imposed; the morality runs only one way. Collective self-defence is often necessary – sometimes you have to get your self-defence in first. This was even more true in the 1760s, when even meeting to discuss wage levels could get you thrown in prison, and demonstrating could bring the army down on you.

And morality was subtly different to our own era; by necessity, bonds of community solidarity were often stronger, and many among the lower orders shared a common disregard for a legal system willing to openly and unhesitatingly shed blood for petty crimes. Two hundred years of careful social conditioning and calculated concessions have altered attitudes towards policing, the law, imprisonment and social/anti-social crime – interesting developments in class and society that we cannot for space reasons go into here. But there’s widespread and stubborn resistance among some strata of the working class even today to the ‘accepted’ moral codes of right and wrong…

Killing Daniel Clarke would not bring back the dead; whether or not the attackers meant him to die. To some extent the attack on him was a spasm of rage from people who had not only lost loved ones and neighbours, but also may have felt they lost the struggle those men had (allegedly) taken part in.

The journeymen in many cases did what they thought was necessary to defend their livelihoods; when you need to eat, morals come second. The law had backed Chauvet and his ilk, accepted the flagrantly bought testimony of Clarke and the other witnesses, and ruthlessly killed Eastman, Horsford and the others cutters… Whether the law had framed guilty men, or connived at the deaths of the innocent, thousands in Spitalfields had known there was no justice for them in the law; only their own actions would get any kind of justice.

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An entry in
 the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar

 

 

 

Today in London workers’ history, 1972: Briant printing works occupied to prevent closure

Who needs bosses? Workers could take over running things themselves tomorrow without even a hiccup…

The firm of Briant Colour Printing was established in the 19th century, owned by the Kitson  family. In 1968 the firm moved to a brand new custom built factory at 651-87 Old Kent Road, (close to the junction of modern Hyndman Street).

Briant’s Workforce was unionised and highly organised: they had fought for, and won, some of the best pay and conditions going, including getting Mayday off as a paid holiday in the late 1960s. Apparently the workers staged a 24 hour occupation in April 1971 to prevent the management sacking 60 staff, resulting in management postponing redundancies. They also had a long tradition of supporting other workers in struggle… including striking against the Industrial Relations Bill in 1971, and supporting striking miners and dockers in 1972.

Owner Timothy Kitson was a tory MP in 1970s, Parliamentary Private Secretary to Prime Minster Ted Heath). The hardcore autonomy of the Bryant workers was not just irritating to the firm’s management, it was personally embarrassing for him… Shame.

The Kitsons sold Briant in early 1972, to Derek Syder, with James McNaughton, of paper merchants Robert Horne (Briant’s biggest creditor) installed as Managing Director.

On June 21 1972, 150 or so workers were told the firm was going into liquidation. At a mass meeting same day, the workers decided to fight the closure: they secured the place, threw out the liquidating directors & declared a work-in to save their jobs. (One manager caught inside was not allowed to leave till money owed to the social club from management was paid up!)

The Times (24 June 1972) reported: ‘About 150 employees started the ‘work-in’ at the Briant Colour Printing company, Peckham on Wednesday after the management announced the company was going into voluntary liquidation… the workers yesterday showed their determination to stay by moving in bedding and food’.

The workers then ran the factory themselves, (until June 1973, when a new owner reopened it)  a going concern during the work-in, during which they attempted to pay themselves a wage (see below in the attached account for the limitations on this). During the occupation, they published their own paper, the BCP Workers News, on 24 hr rosters, with a 50 strong security crew on a 3 shift system. They managing the plant, sorted out supplies of paper and ink etc, organised liaison with clients… A Management committee was created from the workforce, also a procurement committee. They had local support – “A local militant OAP comes in to make the tea”. The work-in was reasonably successful: they had some problems paying bills, but no services were cut off.

The occupiers barred access to the plant to prospective buyers arranged by liquidators; any sale was therefore presented. Various legal stratagems to remove the occupiers were successfully resisted. A court later heard: ‘Possession orders were obtained against seven defendants in January 1973, but they were not enforced because the liquidator feared that the enforcement would result in an industrial fracas and the destruction of valuable machinery’ (Times 28 March 1977) .

Under occupation, Bryant printed lots of material for other disputes, including the Pentonville 5, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation… In July ’72, after the Pentonville 5 had just been jailed, they led first march to Pentonville Prison, diverting a march of their own to Clerkenwell Green. their staunch support of other workers was returned in kind with mass support for the work-in by other sectors.

The occupation was served with 1000s of writs and injunctions – all of which were burned outside the law courts on Bryant demos! A paper plant in Tower Bridge Road, owned by the Robert Horne group of companies was successfully picketed by the occupiers, for a month. Their logic was that Robert Horne – supplier of paper to Briant’s – was the chief creditor and was responsible for sending the firm into liquidation ‘The picket was very effective, reducing the flow of lorries into the factory, usually 40 to 50 a day, to one or two whose drivers were willing to cross the picket line’ (Times, 14 July 1972, 10 August 1972). These pickets led to the first deployment of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group.

There were even discussions with a prospective buyer, David Brockdorff, to agree a deal that would retain some kind of workers’ control: ‘The work-in has broken new ground by carrying into private enterprise the political basis on which the factory has been run by joint union branches. The plant will be run by a ‘management committee’ composed of representatives from three printing unions – the National Society of Operative Printers (Natsopa), the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (Sogat) and the National Graphical Association (NGA) – and managers put in by the new owner’ (Times, 14.12.1972)

This deal fell through and in May 1973 the company was bought by Peter Bentley, although it seems not everybody kept their job. Workers resumed normal capitalist operations on 3rd July 1973. But this was a false dawn – on 16 November 1973 the new owner closed the factory, sending the 50 remaining employees redundancy notices (some turned up for work to find themselves locked out), and installing security guards and alsatians to keep workers out.

We’re not sure if that was the end of the story – transpontine came across a reference to ‘vicious attacks [by police] on pickets at Bryant Colour Printing in 1974’ (this could be an error in dating by the author, or suggesting workers carried on the struggle after the lockout).

However, even if the occupation thus eventually failed to fulfil its original goal, to save jobs, it was seen by its participants as a success, partly because in the short term it did save jobs, and partly, and more importantly, because the participants felt that their taking action was an important element in the wider struggle against redundancies as well as an exciting learning process for themselves..

In 2002 there was a 30-year reunion in Clerkenwell for people who took part. Bill Freeman, a Communist Party activist, was a prominent figure during the occupation as ‘Father of the Chapel’ (the name for a printing shop steward).

Thanks as ever to Transpontine, the top South East London blogzine, in which a brief description of the occupation can be found…

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The following account and analysis of the Briant Colour Printing occupation mainly rests on a 62 pages long chapter in a Danish book on strikes and factory occupations in Great Britain during the early 1970s (Knudsen and Sandahl, 1974), a chapter which primarily builds on nine interviews conducted with BCP workers in January 1973 and information obtained from ‘BCP News’, the newsletter that was published by the occupiers.

An outline of the occupation

When it was announced that BCP was to be closed the notice given to the 130 employees was extremely short. On 21 June 1972 the shop stewards (or fathers or mothers of the chapel as they were termed in accordance with traditions in the printing trade)) were called to a meeting at the management office at 1.45 pm. Here, they were told by the managing director and a person who presented himself as the liquidator that BCP was going into voluntary liquidation and was closing immediately so that all workers were dismissed and should not return to work. The worker representatives were told that the workers at a later stage would get as much as possible of the pay and holiday entitlement that the company owed them. The reasons given for the closure were that BCP had recently incurred heavy losses and that the main creditor, the paper wholesaler Robert Horne Group, was not willing to grant further credits or postponement of payment of debts.

After the meeting the shop stewards briefly discussed the situation with each other. They decided to call a meeting for the whole workforce and to put forward the proposal of an occupation. The idea of an occupation was not alien to them. They knew about the prolonged one that had taken place at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) and others such as the ones at Fisher Bendix in Kirkby and Plessey in Alexandria, and they had themselves taken the initiative to a one-day sit-in in April 1971 against a management proposal to reduce staff. In the atmosphere of chock and anger that characterised the feelings among shop stewards as well as the entire workforce, the idea of an occupation appeared as the only alternative to going home without a job and without pay for work already done. The meeting unanimously decided to occupy the premises. It all happened very quickly. Bill Freeman, a shop steward who was to become the formal as well as de facto leader of the occupation, formulated it like this:

“At 3 o’clock we had the factory completely under our control. There were guards by all doors, all windows were barricaded, and nobody or nothing could get out of or into the factory without our consent. At 1.45 they had told us to get out; at 3 we had thrown them out.”

The decision to occupy was a spontaneous decision; it was triggered by what was perceived as an utterly unjust and irrational management decision, a decision that provoked a strong sense of anger and of having been conned and let down. BCP was a relatively modern and technologically up-to-date print shop. In 1967 the firm had established itself in new buildings and with modern machinery at the Old Kent Road. Due to economic recession and increased competition the years 1970 and 1971 had been difficult ones for BCP, with a turn-over that was well below the capacity of the establishment. In July 1971, apparently after pressure from the Robert Horne Group, a change in ownership took place. A Mr. Syder, who already was established with several firms in the printing industry, bought the establishment for merely £27,750. In May 1972 a new managing director was appointed. The post was given to a person who had formerly been a director at Hornes. At a meeting with the shop stewards, less than two months before the liquidation announcement was given, the new managing director promised a bright future for the BCP including increasing turn-over and substantial investments in new equipment. Actually, things did look bright at that time. Turn-over in April-May 1972 amounted to £117,000 as against £70,000 in the same months the year before, and the order book stood at £139,000 compared to £47,000 one year earlier.

Against this background management’s contention that BCP was running at a considerable loss sounded odd to the workers. A subsequent attempt by the occupiers to analyse the financial situation of BCP led the workers to the conclusion that the deficit was due to the fact that assets had been transferred to the owner and his other firms. They believed the Robert Horne Group was behind these transactions and, ultimately, the decision to close BCP, perhaps because the group wanted to take over the piece of land at which BCP was placed. What was the real story behind the closure never became known. However, the impression that emerged and stabilised itself among the workers was that the alleged losses were not due to any lack of efficiency and productivity in the print shop or among its workers. Rather, they saw themselves as victims of cold, financial speculations. This interpretation also gained strength due to a particular event at the beginning of the occupation. Whilst the workers thought they had evicted all management representatives (except for foremen who were invited to stay), it turned out that one person had remained in the offices at the first floor of the building. He was found the next day where it also became evident that his task had been to destroy as much as possible of the documents that could shed light on the financial situation of BCP.

After the decision to occupy had been taken the next step was to form an organisation that could govern the occupation. A joint chapel consisting of all workers at BCP was founded and designed as the occupation’s highest authority. It was to function through weekly plenary meetings. The joint chapel elected an action committee that should serve as the joint chapel’s executive body. The action committee had to carry out decisions taken at the plenary, handle contacts with the press, the trade unions and employers as well as act here and now if anything should come up between the weekly meetings. The committee consisted of 12 persons, namely the six shop stewards and their substitutes. One of the shop stewards, Bill Freeman, was elected as chairman of the committee. Later in the process this organisation structure was supplemented with several sub-committees dealing with issues such as production, security, public relations etc.

The first days and weeks of the occupation were full of activities aimed at organising and consolidating the occupation. Although it was decided to call the occupation a ‘work-in’ and continue working, the main concern was to defend the premises against possible attacks from the police. Rotas were organised to ensure that the entrances were guarded at all times, and during the first weeks demonstrations and mass meetings were organised to show that the occupiers were not alone. Thousands of workers showed up at these events to show their solidarity. Other activities were aimed at organising facilities that made it possible to stay at BCP all day and night round: food, beds etc.

However, at the same time the BCP workers continued to work and use their skills as graphical workers. The work was of three types. Firstly, work went into making PR-material for their own action, mainly in the form of a newsletter that was printed in 80,000 copies at certain intervals. Secondly, work was freely supplied to other workers engaged in industrial action. As an example, they supported actions staged by the dock workers, not only by being active in the demonstrations and picketing organised by the dockers, but also by printing posters and leaflets in support of five dock workers who were jailed in Pentonville prison in July 1972 due to allegedly unlawful industrial action. Another example was the printing of a ‘victory bulletin’ for the UCS workers. Thirdly, production on a business basis to some extent continued. Orders that were being carried out at the time of the liquidation were completed, and customers were urged to place new orders. Some existing customers did so, and at the same time new customers, mainly trade unions and left wing organisations, appeared. However, the turn-over, amounting to less than £30,000 for the first six months of the occupation, was only a small fraction of full production.

For this reason, a further important task was to raise incomes that could sustain the occupiers. Two sources were particularly important. One was the trade unions to which the BCP workers belonged, the most important ones being the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT), the National Society of Operative Printers and Assistants (NATSOPA) and the National Graphical Association (NGA). They all decided to declare the action staged by the BCP workers official and consequently paid out strike support. The other one was contributions from people who sympathised with the action, whether they came from  print workers in Fleet Street who had signed up for a weekly levy, or from people gathered at trade union meetings, tenants’ meetings, students’ meetings etc. Bill Freeman was enthusiastic about the support:

“Money has come from so to speak everywhere, from all parts of the country, from abroad, from people on the shop floor, shop steward committees, factories, from voluntary collections, tenants’ organisations, political parties, churches, pensioners, even school children have given money, anybody.”

Nevertheless, the occupation was costly to the workers. They had been relatively well paid until the liquidation and now typically experienced a reduction of their income to half of what it was before. In relative terms, some were hit harder than others for the joint chapel took the decision that under the new conditions everybody should earn the same. Among the people who left during the occupation, some 45 out of 130, most probably did so for financial reasons; others left because they were, or became, dissatisfied with the way the occupation was run, including the fact that it continued for such a long time.

The BCP workers at several times discussed their aim: what would be the preferred result of their action? Forming a co-operative was seriously considered, but rejected, among other things because it was expected that many costumers would be unwilling to use a firm that had become known because of the militant act of occupying. This would make it extra difficult to survive in an industry characterised by strong competition. The preferred result therefore became to find a new employer, a person or firm that would buy BCP with the intention of continuing production.

On the basis of their theory that the Robert Horne Group was ultimately responsible for the liquidation the BCP workers attempted to put pressure on this company. Their main weapon was to picket the Robert Horne factory and store in Tower Bridge Road. This took place in the summer of 1972. It came to violent scenes one day when the Special Patrol Group of the police beat up a dozen of workers who were picketing. The news of this attack spread rapidly, and when the London dockers held a mass meeting the next day at Tower Hill they decided to go and take part in the picketing. This resulted in a mass battle between about 1000 picketers and several hundred policemen. The picketing went on for over a month and proved rather effective as it prevented lorries from entering the factory. It had the effect that Robert Horne took up negotiations with the BCP action committee. In order to get the picketing lifted Horne promised a) to help find a new buyer for BCP, b) to grant a new buyer extensive credits, and c) to persuade the present owner, Mr. Syder, to transfer a substantial amount of orders to the new owner. The BCP workers also considered to attempt to force the Robert Horne Group itself to become the new owner, but the idea was rejected because they did not trust that this would be a stable employer.

In the autumn of 1972 negotiations took place between BCP and union representatives on one side and a prospective buyer, David Brockdorff, on the other. By December the unions announced that they had reached an agreement with Mr. Brockdorff, and they put pressure on the BCP workers to accept the deal, among other things by announcing that their financial support to the occupiers would now be withdrawn. The deal seemed to go some way to fulfil the demands of the BCP workers, among other things it envisaged a joint governance structure in which managers put in by the new owners should manage in cooperation with representatives from the three printing unions NATSOPA, SOGAT and NGA (Times, 14.12.1972). However, not all BCP workers were guaranteed employment, and mainly for this reason the deal was rejected by the workers. The negotiation process led to a strained relationship between the occupiers and the unions. As one of the workers put it:

“The unions want it ended as fast as possible, and I don’t think they worry much about what kind of pay and working conditions we get as long it is just gotten over with”.

By then the occupation had become more or less routine, and the days and weeks were increasingly experienced as waiting time, thus challenging the morale of the occupiers. One of the workers explained it in this way in January 1973:

“At times it gets depressing, it gets extremely depressing, especially when there are not many people here, late in the day, and for people who are guarding the buildings during the night…There are a couple of people here who appear to be rather depressed all the time, and they also talk about leaving. But most people only feel like that for shorter periods, and you try to keep the spirit up. In the daytime it is ok here, but after six or seven in the evening there are only a few people here…, and you don’t know what to talk about, if nothing new has happened, everything is very slow”.

In spite of a situation that could be felt like stalemate most workers decided to stay with the occupation. While the offensive to find a new employer had failed so far there was still a defence to put up. In February the liquidator achieved a court order against the members of the action committee for illegal occupation of the factory, with a demand that losses incurred by the factory due to the occupation should be compensated. The BCP workers decided that nobody should appear in court. Fearing that the committee would be arrested they elected a substitute committee, but first of all they reacted by printing and circulating a leaflet asking workers to take part in a demonstration outside the BCP premises on the day the committee was summoned to appear in court. On that day, 13 February, 3-4000 workers were gathered in defence of the BCP occupiers. Among those present were representatives from UCS, from the docks, car factories and from the newspaper print shops in Fleet Street as well many other places. UCS representatives pledged financial support from the UCS struggle fund, and electricians from Fleet Street promised that the newspapers would be totally paralysed if steps were taken to evict or arrest workers from BCP.
The legal system was applied again on 1 March when a new court order was issued, this time only addressed to Bill Freeman. Again the court order was ignored, and again the occupiers experienced that the police abstained from taking action against them.

In May the attempt to find a new owner finally made substantial progress. On 18 May the liquidator signed a contract stating that ownership of BCP was transferred to Peter Bentley. By the end of June an agreement was reached between Mr. Bentley and the chapels at BCP. The new owner offered employment to 58 of those 84 workers who had remained at BCP; the rest were offered jobs at other workplaces. Mr. Bentley promised that during a trial period of at least one year production would be maintained even if it would generate a loss. Under these conditions and under the slightly changed name Briant Colour Print, the print shop began to operate again on capitalist market conditions on 2 July 1973. The spirit was high among the workers. On their first working day they were heard singing and whistling at their jobs, thus celebrating that the long period of uncertainty and financial hardship was over.

However, once more the BCP workers were to experience that promises made by management cannot always be trusted. When at 10 pm on Friday the 16 November the evening shift had gone home from work the new owner sent in security guards who were instructed to make sure that the premises should not be occupied again. On the next day the BCP workers received a letter telling them that they had been dismissed.

After this long process of first uncertainty, then victory, and then defeat, the BCP workers were not prepared to begin a new collective struggle. For several months they continued to have a joint meeting every fortnight where they discussed their common experience and helped each other to find jobs elsewhere. In 2002 an invitation appeared on trade union sites on the internet in which Bill Freeman invited participants and friends of the occupation, including Tony Benn, to the 30th anniversary of the BCP occupation.

The motivation behind the occupation

In a recent article Gall (2010) attempts to explain why workers in some instances when faced with redundancies choose to occupy their workplace instead of behaving in the more mainstream way, i.e. to accept the redundancies while trying to get as much out of the situation as possible through negotiations over notice periods, redundancy payments etc. He identifies five characteristics that, if present in a given redundancy situation, push in the direction of occupation, namely:
–    collectivised nature of redundancy
–    immediate and unforeseen nature of redundancy
–    loss of deferred wages and compensation
–    pre-existing collectivisation
–    positive demonstration effect (from other occupations)

In the BCP case all these conditions were highly present. First, as the entire workforce was made redundant they were all hit in the same way and were facing the same problem, thus it was obvious to interpret it as a collective problem. Second, the redundancies were not foreseen and they were to be implemented without any notice whatsoever. Third, management’s announcement that deferred wages and holiday entitlement would be paid out at a later state, to the extent it would be possible, appeared vague and rather unconvincing. The second and third factors together were active in creating the sense of chock and anger that was predominant among the workers when they took the decision to stage an occupation. Fourth, workers at BCP were unionised and had a fairly strong tradition of acting collectively through their shop stewards, mainly though negotiations with management but also with a preparedness to down tools, one example being the brief sit-in the year before the occupation. Fifth, the workers knew about the series of factory occupations that took or recently had taken place in Britain, notable the one at UCS which received a lot of attention in the media. A few of the workers, one of them being Bill Freeman, had been active in supporting some of the other occupations and were very much aware of the occupation as a weapon that can be applied against redundancies.

Yet, as also pointed out by Gall (2010) even if these favourable conditions apply, as they certainly did in the BCP case, in most cases workers do not decide to occupy their workplace when faced with redundancies or closure. One reason for this is that many people do not perceive an occupation as a legitimate act as it involves breaking the law when workers take control over and to some extent use property belonging to the owners. Workers thus usually have moral concerns that work against the rational, tactical arguments that can be articulated in favour of an occupation. It must be presumed, however, that such concerns are weighed against considerations regarding the morality displayed by the employer. In the BCP case such a comparison of moral standards on the two sides were clearly visible. One worker had this to say about the behaviour of the owner, Mr. Syder:

“We found bills here for the big party he threw when his new swimming pool was inaugurated. I think the bill for the booze alone was £3-4000, he rented a tent, £4000! He had a bill on his Aston Martin from his mechanic, how much? £800! That man is nothing but a simple thief, and still he gets away with it, because he is all the time doing it in the legal way. There is nothing you can do, you know….And he says to us that this firm has to close, because it has been so much run down, you know. It is these people you have to work for, and have to respect, they even think. I mean, I have no respect for that kind of people, you know.”

The decision to frame the occupation as a work-in was also influenced by moral considerations. Bill Freeman explained:

“The occupation is more important than the work-in. The important thing is that you control their property and that they cannot touch it. But we decided to have a work-in because we found that it would be relatively easy for us to run a work-in, contrary to for instance for workers in the heavy industry, and because we thought it would be good for people to have something to do while being here. Plus the fact that it wins the sympathy of the broad population…When we say we demand the right to work and proves it by working it helps psychologically to win the support of the broad population.”

It was clear from the interviews that the BCP occupiers felt strongly offended, felt they were being treated with disrespect (Honneth 1996) and found their own action morally superior to the type of employer behaviour they had been exposed to. Prior to the occupation, the great majority of workers at BCP held rather conventional views about society, politics, law and order. With the decision to occupy the workers went beyond their own norms regarding law and order. In this process, moral outrage served as a driving force just as much more ‘rational’ and interest-based factors of the type identified by Gall (2010).

To a minority among the workers politics also played a motivating role. Within the workforce there was a small group of persons who saw themselves as socialist activists and found it important not just to struggle for own interests, but also to engage in other workers’ struggles. They interpreted the BCP occupation as not just a struggle to defend their own jobs, but as part of a wider class struggle. Bill Freeman, a member of the Communist Party, belonged to this group and described the political motivation like this:

“…we try to show other workers that you can fight an employer, and if we can do it we hope to be part of…UCS has shown it, other people have shown it, and if enough people take this form of action, we should, in due time, be able to build a movement which can completely overthrow this system. I hope so; that is what it is all about”.

If such a revolutionary perspective had not been present among a small, but influential part of the workforce, things might have turned out differently, as witnessed by these reflections by one of the lay workers:

“…most likely we would have left the place after a couple of hours of discussion, but luckily Mr. Freeman had a bit of experience from… other people’s situation outside this industry…Mr. Freeman has been in the executive of the chapel and has always been interested in industrial relations, also outside this trade. He knew about what had happened earlier, and he knew what could be done, or what you can attempt to do to defend jobs.”

With Bill Freeman as leader it was central for the BCP occupation not just to fight for own jobs but to link with other struggles at the time. It appears that the majority of the workers, even if not sharing the revolutionary perspective, supported this active class struggle approach. For instance, several of the interviewed workers expressed their enthusiasm about the close cooperation that developed between the dockers and the BCP workers. One said:

“It was fantastic. It is the first time I have seen two trades so closely connected… It has amazed me how much we actually got involved with each other, while normally, if a trade union has a problem, it fights by itself, alone, you know. We had meetings and demonstrations where the dockers took part, and we took part when they had their problems in the docks and had some blokes put in Pentonville prison”.

To sum up: the motivation behind the occupation consisted in a complex mix of instrumental and moral and political elements. However, one thing is the motivation to occupy, another is how workers manage to sustain an occupation over time, or, in the BCP case, how could the occupation be kept alive for more than a year? This is the theme of next section.

Sustaining the occupation

In particular three aspects merit attention when this question is addressed: the material and moral support received from unions, other workers and sympathisers in general; the significance of conducting the occupation as a work-in; and the specific forms of organisation chosen to govern the occupation.

Regarding the first aspect, the BCP occupiers were themselves very active in attempting to raise support from their unions, other workers and the trade union movement at large. They circulated their newsletter and leaflets widely and travelled up and down the country to speak at solidarity meetings. As described above they were rather successful in promoting their case, and in this way sympathy action as well as fund-raising were stimulated, both vital for the survival of the occupation. Collections of money that could supplement the funds granted by the unions were necessary to guarantee the subsistence of the workers, and, if we are to understand why the occupiers were never confronted with attempts to evict them, the recurring mass demonstrations outside the factory gates were probably a decisive factor. An important part of the total support came from the unions in the printing industry. Although the BCP workers felt that the support from their unions was only lukewarm and that “they could have done a hell of a lot more”, they would of course have been in a much more difficult situation if the unions had failed to make their industrial action official and support it materially.

As a second aspect, the fact that the occupation was organised as a work-in played a significant role in sustaining the occupation. The motives for making it a work-in have already been mentioned. Apart from the publicity argument which helped to raise sympathy and support, the work-in was significant in the sense that it helped making it attractive for workers to stay with the occupation. While the hopes of finding a new employer were frustrated several times there was still something to do within the premises. It was not just the defence of the buildings; there was also work to do, and in this way the occupiers could maintain their identity as print workers. So, in spite of depressing moods among those guarding the buildings during long and cold winter nights most workers felt that it was worthwhile to stay. After the first six months of the occupation the figure of 130 employees had only shrunk to about 100, and when it ended after 12 months there were still 84 workers taking part in the collective action.

In the beginning work mainly consisted in printing posters, leaflets and newsletters for the BCP occupation itself or in support of other workers in struggle. However, BCP also continued to receive commercial orders, partly from old customers, partly from new ones. Although most of the old customers stopped placing orders at BCP some continued to do so. Especially firms that needed reprints of material that existed in print ready form at BCP came back as it would be considerably more costly to have the work done elsewhere. Out of the total production about 60 per cent was commercial work where BCP printed tickets, posters, books, advertisements etc. as they had done before. On top of this, there was work that fulfilled mainly politically motivated orders: from trade union organisations, tenants’ organisations, community groups etc. Prices varied from full market price if the customer was a private firm or an established trade union, to nothing if the customer was a group without resources that the BCP occupiers sympathised with. Bill Freeman explained:

“If it is people in struggle like ourselves, without any money, then we just use the resources of the firm, and that is that. If it is somebody who can pay a little bit, then they just pay for the materials, our labour is free”.

The BCP workers took pride in being able to help other workers by doing what they were good at: printing. At the same time the work-in gave them confidence in their ability to produce without being managed by an employer. In the words of one of the workers:

“…with a sit-in you just occupy the buildings, but with a work-in, like the one we have here, we have shown that we can run the factory, you know. Maybe not so efficiently, you know, but with a little training, with a little time, there is no doubt that we can do it.”

Work was organised differently than prior to the occupation. Together with a representative from the action committee those of the foremen who had stayed on formed a management committee. This committee planned and coordinated production and established manning and time schedules. Functions that before was carried out by office and management staff, such as sales and accounting, were taken over by print workers. Workers’ influence over their work greatly increased while discipline was very much left to the individual workers. The latter was a source to some tensions between workers, as not everyone was equally conscientious in relation to the tasks that had to be done within the new work organisation.

The experience of the work-in was accompanied by lengthy discussions at the joint meetings of the concept of workers’ control. Was workers’ control a desirable goal? How should it be practised? Can it be practised in a capitalist society or only within a different political-economical system? Opinions varied, also when it was discussed more specifically whether the workers should try to buy the firm and form a cooperative. In the end, arguments that are sceptical towards such a solution won the day. Fearing that a cooperative would be blacklisted by other firms, one worker commented that “we would have the whole system against us – it would simply be downhill all the time”. Bill Freeman explained his position – a position that no doubt heavily influenced the decision eventually taken by the collective:

“It is not because we think that any other employer will be much better than the old ones, all employers are alike, you know. Basically, we don’t want an employer at all, we want to change the system – some of us, not all of us, want to change the system. But at the same time it is just unrealistic to try to run this place as a kind of socialist island in a capitalist sea”.

A third factor that was influential in sustaining the occupation was its internal organisation. The three layered structure described above consisting of the weekly plenary meeting, the executive committee (the action committee) and the chairman of the action committee appears to have functioned well in the sense that the organisation managed to solve the many problems and challenges that the occupation was confronted with. It happened in a way in which concerns for democracy as well as efficiency were taken into consideration.

One of the workers vividly explained how the joint chapel meeting, the weekly plenary, helped to integrate and to create a feeling of community:

“I have noticed that when you start a new week then Monday and Tuesday are ok, Wednesday is not so good, and on Thursday and Friday you start quarrelling a bit and everything begins to dissolve. Then on Monday there is a joint meeting and everything is picked up again. It is interesting, you know, everything is melted together again, and it is really very good…I would think that if two or three weeks passed without a meeting it would fall completely apart”.

He also stressed that the meetings appeared more important and exciting than prior chapel meetings. While chapel meetings were rather boring

“now everything is much more important, the joint meetings are interesting, we always get a report on the situation, about the financial situation, about how long we can continue and whether somebody has left the occupation. The meetings always succeed in becoming extremely interesting…Now everyone has something to say about how things should be run in these buildings…You are involved in much more, you are not just a number, you really have a real influence on everything”.

The next layer, the action committee met frequently, often on daily basis. The committee was in charge of implementing the decisions taken by the joint chapel. One of the shop stewards serving on the committee explained how the occupation had changed his daily work:

“I have not worked in the print shop at all during these six months. All my time has been devoted to contacting people, going out talking to people, and there is also a great deal of paperwork involved in it”.

Finally, the organisation consisted of a third layer, the chairman of the action committee who was the charismatic Bill Freeman. It is difficult to overestimate his role during the entire process. Although, as mentioned, his revolutionary views of society and the meaning of the BCP occupation were hardly shared by the majority of the workers, the interviews demonstrate that he was very much respected and looked up to by the workers. A worker, who presented himself as the oldest worker at BCP and as one who had been made redundant six times during his career in the printing industry, had this to say:

“…I have always tried to be an active trade unionist, but I mean Bill is somewhat different from the other shop stewards you meet, some of them don’t really care…When I came here five years ago and saw how the chapels were organised it warmed my heart, you know, really wonderful. Our chapter has always been a strong one. It made me feel really happy, right from when I started here”.

Another worker gave this description of Bill Freeman’s role in the occupation:

“…he is fantastic. He inspires people with so much self-confidence. Many times people have said: ‘We have lost, we are finished, nobody wants to buy us…and that’s it then’, and he says, ‘Well, if we can’t do that, then we will do this’. Never ever during the seven months have I heard him say we have lost. ‘If we stick together, one hundred per cent together, we cannot loose’, he says. It has been like that right from the start. He said, ‘We must win, and if we win, forget what we are doing for ourselves, it will be a victory for the entire people in this country, the entire working class…”.

Beyond success or failure: the occupation as a learning process

In instrumental terms the result of the occupation can hardly be described as a success, let alone victory. If we leave out of account the fact that some 80-100 workers had some kind of job and income during the one year of the occupation, and that some 50 jobs were maintained under the new employer for a period of four months after the occupation, the attempt to use the occupation as an instrument to save jobs failed in the long run.

However, this is not say that the struggle as such that BCP workers put up against redundancies can be categorised neatly as a failure. Saving jobs was the official, instrumental goal of the action, but it was not the only goal, and it was not the only thing that made the action meaningful for its participants. To many of the participants the occupation was first and foremost a protest, a piece of resistance demonstrating that the BCP workers simply would not accept being thrown out of work from one day to the next. Thus from this perspective the important thing was not the instrumental result of the action as such, but the fact that they were resisting. One of the workers, who, in the light of the conditions offered by Mr. Brockdorff, did not expect himself to maintain his job due his low seniority in the firm, put it like this:

“I think we won they day we started. That is my personal opinion. The day we rose up and did not walk out the door as sheep, I think we won then, you know”.

To people like Bill Freeman the sheer deed of putting up a fight against employers’ hegemony over work was also just as important as defending his own and his colleagues’ jobs. They saw the occupation as part of a wider movement that could eventually lead to fundamental changes in the country’s economic system. And even if such wider consequences should not materialise, the idea was that at least some employers might start reconsidering how they treated their workers. One of the not so militant workers felt that the occupation had already had a certain positive impact on industrial relations:

“…if we do not succeed the time has not been wasted, that is how I look at it. The time has not been wasted if we are going to be here for another six months and there is still no solution… Even if we have to walk out of here I am sure it must have done some good, somewhere, you know. Those in power cannot always win as easily as they would like.”

He continued to tell a story of how an officer in his union recently had been approached by an employer who said that he would have to sack some of his employees. He had then added that he did not want “to get another Briant Colour case” in his firm, and had asked the union officer how much he thought it would be necessary to pay on top of the normal redundancy payment to make sure that he could avoid trouble. Therefore:

“Well that’s fine, that’s what I like, that’s what I hope we achieve even if we loose here, do you see what I mean? As I said I am sure we have achieved something. Even if we loose here we have perhaps helped to save jobs in other companies because of this”.

BCP workers thus found themselves recognised and their action appreciated by other workers. In this sense they saw their action as a collective success. Another aspect concerned what taking part in the occupation had meant to them at a personal level. Many of the interviewed workers stressed that the occupation had been an important learning process for them. They had acquired new skills, new knowledge and a changed consciousness as to how industrial relations and society function. A shop steward told how the occupation had been “an education” for him in the sense that he was now much less naïve about how business people are prepared to treat workers. He also noted this about some of his fellow workers:

“People here at Briant, people I personally thought were untalented in the sense that they were only able to do their job, and only that job, they have surprised us by suddenly finding new talents. We have had people to do the accounts, you know, people who can go out and speak at meetings, you know. Things like that which we did not know existed at all in any of these people have sprung up. There are some people here now who feel that they would rather do something else than return to their old job”.

One worker, a middle aged bookbinder, also described how people had developed new skills, technically as well as regarding industrial relations:

“We have learned so much from it. These people up here in the offices have learned more during these six months than what they have learned since they left school…I mean I have learned a lot on the shop floor I must admit, but these people up here have literally learned more about so many things than they have ever learned in the trade. And of course this information can be passed on to any other workplace which finds itself in a similar situation”.

A young bookbinder gave this personal account of how his work life had changed during the occupation:

“Bill asked at one of the meetings if I would take minutes and then it developed from there. I began to usually take the minutes. In the beginning I still tended my old job on the shop floor, but gradually it became difficult to do both things, for there were many meetings at that time…Then I was more or less up here in the offices all the time, unless they really needed people downstairs. During the last two months I have helped with a number of different things up here. I have also gone out to a number of universities as a speaker, when they couldn’t find anybody else that could go. I have also helped with the mail and a couple of other small jobs…I could not really just sit down on the shop floor and wait for the things to happen…, I have to get involved”.

For some the occupation was a political education. Whether it was the oldest worker at BCP who said:

“This is the first work-in I have ever taken part in…, and I have learned a lot from it, a hell of a lot, about how people can stick together and things like that…I would do it again if I am made redundant again. I would not hesitate”

Or the young unskilled worker who stressed how more well known worker activists had inspired him:

“During the six months here I think I have learned more than during 13 years in the printing industry…I have met some fantastic people and I have heard some fantastic people speak at meetings…Like when they came down from UCS, they were fantastic. When they stood up and spoke you felt eight feet tall just by listening to them”.

Or the middle aged foreman who had rejected normal managerial attitudes:

“Let me put it like this: as a foremen you socialise with other foremen and managers, and if you do it long enough you get brainwashed into their politics, you tend to believe they are right regarding their conflicts with people on the shop floor…But in that respect I have definitely changed within the last three or four months. I have realised a lot about what is wrong with the system”.

The BCP workers all came out of the occupation with a changed biography. Not everyone may have learned so much and changed so much as described in the examples above. However, although uncertainty and hardships also formed part of the experience it was an exiting and inspiring event in the lives of all the participants.  A feature that was repeated again and again in the interviews was the pride with which they presented their action. It was their action, but at the same time they represented the mood of the time, a mood of liberation against forms of humiliation and oppression that were, and largely still are, part of working life in capitalist society. The occupation was influenced by that mood as well as it was reinforcing it. To use the expression of Malcolm Marks, an activist in the 1971 occupation at Fisher Bendix, it was “a mini-revolution” (Knudsen and Sandahl 1974, 12).

References

Honneth, A. (1996): The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, London, Polity Press.
http://transpont.blogspot.com/2009/08/briant-colour-printing-occupation-… (accessed 22.03.2011)
Knudsen, H. and Sandahl, J. (1974): Arbejdskamp i Storbritannien. Strejker og fabriksbesættelser i begyndelsen af 1970’erne, Aarhus, Modtryk.
Times, 14.12.1972.

This account was heisted from workerscontrol.net

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An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London industrial history: uber-factory the Albion Mills burns down, 1791.

The Albion Mills

The Albion Mills, the first great factory in London, formerly stood on the east side of Blackfriars Road, on the approach to Blackfriars Bridge. They were steam-powered mills, established in 1786 by Matthew Boulton & James Watt, featuring one of the first uses of Watt’s steam engines to drive machinery, and were designed by pioneering engineer John Rennie (who later built nearby London Bridge). Grinding 10 bushels of wheat per hour, by 20 pairs of 150 horsepower millstones, the Mills were the ‘Industrial wonder’ of the time, quickly becoming a fashionable sight of the London scene… Erasmus Darwin called them “the most powerful machines in the world.”

But if the trendy middle and upper classes liked to drive to Blackfriars in their coaches and gawp at the new industrial age being born, other, harder eyes saw Albion Mills in different light. They were widely resented, especially by local millers and millworkers…

At one time the Thames bank at Lambeth was littered with windmills – eventually they were all put out of business by steam power. When the Albion opened London millers feared ruin.

Steam was one of the major driving forces of industrialisation and the growth of capitalism. The spectre of mechanisation, of labour being herded together in larger and larger factories, was beginning to bite. Already artisan and skilled trades were starting to decline, agricultural workers were being forced into cities to find work, dispossessed from the countryside by enclosure and farm machinery… Many of those who had not yet felt the hand of factory production driving down wages, deskilling, alienating and shortening the lifespan, could read the writing on the wall.

Mills & millers were often the focus of popular anger. Not only were they widely believed to practice forms of adulteration, adding all sorts of rubbish to flour to increase profits (Significantly in many folk and fairy tales the miller is often a greedy cheating baddie), but at times of high wheat prices and thus, (since bread was the main diet of the poor) widespread hunger, bakers and millers would be the target of rioters, often accused along with farmers and landowners of hoarding to jack up prices. Bread riots could involve the whole community, though they were often led by women. Rioters would often seize bread and force bakers to it at a price they thought fair, or a long-established price; this was the strongest example of the so-called ‘moral economy’ (discussed by EP Thompson and other radical historians) a set of economic and social practices based in a popular view of how certain basic needs ought to be fairly and cheaply available.

The idea of a moral economy was one that crossed class boundaries, a reflection of the paternalist society, where all knew their place, but all classes had responsibilities and there were certain given rights to survival. But this moral economy, such as it was, was bound up with pre-capitalist society – which were being superseded by the growth of capitalism, of social relations based solely on profit and wage labour…

“Dark Satanic Mills”

Cockney revolutionary visionary William Blake, an artisan himself (an engraver), felt and expressed the powerful mistrust of the growing changes. He lived in nearby Lambeth, and it’s thought that Albion Mills could have inspired his references to “dark Satanic mills”. The name Albion may have set Blake off, as Albion as a symbolic name for an idealised England, played an important part in his radical spiritual mythology. Blake was in the 1790s a political radical, like many artisans, inspired by the French Revolution; he also strongly opposed the rational mechanical Industrial Revolution and devised a mystical creative spirituality which set itself very much against industrialisation

Blake took the traditional mistrust of the symbolic figure of the Miller several steps further: in ‘Milton’ he described Satan as the “Miller of Eternity”, whose mills represent the cold inhuman power of intellect, grinding down and destroying the imagination.

“all sorts of base mixtures”

Dark rumours were spread locally about the Albion Works: “The millers, themselves best aware of what roguery might be practiced in their own trade, spread abroad reports that the flour was adulterated with all sorts of base mixtures.” (Robert Southey)

Powerful watermill owners had attempted to prevent Albion being opened: they had managed to deter venture capitalists in the City from investing in the building, but Watt and Boulton had found the money themselves. In 1791, after a shaky start, the Mills looked like they were hitting profitability…

“Success to the mills of ALBION but NO Albion Mills.”

On 2 March 1791 Albion Mills burned down. The cause was never officially discovered, but it was widely believed to be arson by local millers or millworkers, feeling their livelihood was under threat. It was reported that “the main cock of the water cistern was fastened, the hour of low tide was chosen” when the fire started…

The fire could have been accidental: there had been some concerns about safety, and mills were prone to fire, with sparks and friction caused by grinding, and all that dust, chaff and flour about…

“The fire broke out during the night, a strong breeze was blowing from the east, and the parched corn fell in a black shower above a league distant: even fragments of wood still burning fell above Westminster Bridge.”

The interior of the mills was totally destroyed in half an hour, the roof crashing in quickly. The fire could be seen for miles: burning grains and sparks blew all over the City and Westminster.

A huge crowd gathered and made no effort to save the Mills, but stood around watching in grim satisfaction! “The mob, who on all such occasions bestir themselves to extinguish a fire with that ready and disinterested activity which characterises the English, stood by now as willing spectators of the conflagration…” (Southey)

Later in the day locals & mill workers danced around the flames & “and before the engines had ceased to play upon the smoking ruins, ballads of rejoicing were printed and sung on the spot” (Southey). Millers waved placards which read “Success to the mills of ALBION but no Albion Mills.”

After a soldier and a constable got into a row, a fight broke out, leading to a mini-riot; but firemen turned their hoses on crowd (early water cannon!)

“…it was supposedly maliciously burnt, and it is certain the mob stood and enjoyed the conflagration… Palace Yard and part of St James Park were covered in half burnt grains..” (Horace Walpole)

A flood of speedily printed ballads, lampoons, prints and broadsheets celebrated the burning:

“And now the folks begin to shout,
Hear the rumours they did this and that.
But very few did sorrow show
That the Albion Mills were burnt so low.

Says one they had it in their power,
For to reduce the price of flour,
Instead of letting the bread raise,
But now the Mills are all in a blaze,

In lighters there was saved wheat,
But scorched and scarcely fit to eat.
Some Hundred Hogs served different ways
While Albion Mills were in a blaze.

Now God bless us one and all,
And send the price of bread may fall.
That the poor with plenty may abound,
Tho’ the Albion Mills burnt to the ground.”

(Extract from a popular song, published March 10th 1791)

“…maliciously burnt…?”

Was it arson? The Mills stood in Blackfriars, an area together with neighbouring Southwark long notorious for its rebellious poor and for artisan and early working class political organisation. Just as the Luddites, stockingers of the North & Midlands were soon to smash machinery that threatened their livelihoods, did workers displaced or fearing displacement by the Mills take matters into their own hands? 18th Century London workers undercut by the new industrial processes did destroy the machines taking their jobs… In Limehouse in 1768, Dingley’s mechanical Sawmill was burnt down by 500 sawyers put out of work.  Around the same time Spitalfields silkweavers were also fighting a heavy fight against mechanisation and wage cuts, smashing machinery and intimidating masters and workers undercutting the agreed rate.

It’s also possible that disgruntled small millowners were behind the burning. Although Albion had not entirely replaced local water-powered mills, it had caused disruptions in the price of wheat, which may have hit small mills’ profits.

Albion Mills remained a derelict burned out shell until 1809, when it was pulled down. Most of the Steam-powered flour mills subsequently built in London were much smaller. Whether or not it was arson, whether it was the millers or millworkers who burned it, the fire was long remembered and celebrated locally. Rightly or wrongly, in popular tradition, and maybe in the rhymes of Blake, the Mill stands as a symbol of the disruption and disaffection caused by industrialisation, but also of the powerful if ultimately defeated (thus far) resistance to the march of capitalism.

Some Sources/useful reading

  • William Blake, Milton, A Poem in Two Books (1804)
  • Broadsheet with a popular song celebrating the Burning of the Mills, Published March 1791, by C. Sheppard
  • Robert Southey, Excursion To Greenwich, in his Letters from England, 1802-3.
  • E.P. Thompson: Customs in Common, especially Chapter 4, The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century.
  • George Rude, Wilkes and Liberty.
  • Icons
  • Lost Industry

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An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London strike history, 1739: Chips on their shoulders, Deptford shipwrights strike

“On Friday afternoon a meeting of a very alarming nature took place at Deptford amongst the Shipwrights; we are given to understand it arose about their perquisites of chips…”

Deptford Dockyard was an important naval dockyard and base at Deptford on the River Thames, in what is now the London Borough of Lewisham, operated by the Royal Navy from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. It built and maintained warships for 350 years. Over the centuries, as Britain’s Imperial expansion, based heavily on its naval seapower, demanded more and more ships, and the royal dockyards like Deptford, Woolwich, Chatham and Portsmouth were often busy, and grew larger and larger, employing more and more workers.

Until the 19th century, ships were largely built of wood, and shipwrights, skilled carpenters, were the backbone of Dockyard organisation. During peacetime in the 18th century it was estimated that 14 shipwrights were needed for every 1,000 tons of shipping in the Navy. There were 2581 shipwrights in the Royal Dockyards in 1804, excluding apprentices. Another 5,100 shipwrights were employed in Private English Dockyards.

“The tools of a working shipwright were those of the carpenter. In general, however, they were much heavier, as he worked in oak rather than soft wood and with large timbers. He used an adze, a long handled tool much like a gardeners hoe. The transverse axe-like blade was used for trimming timber. To fasten timbers and planks, wood treenails were used. These were made from “clear” oak and could be up to 36” long and 2” in diameter. The auger was used to bore holes into which the treenails were driven, and the shipwright had the choice of some ten sizes ranging from 2” down to ½”. A mall, basically a large hammer with a flat face and a long conical taper on the other was used for driving the treenails. Shipwrights also used two-man cross-cut saws as well as a single handsaw. Good sawing saved much labour with the adze. Other tools used were heavy axes and hatchets for hewing, and hacksaws and cold chisels to cut bolts to length. Iron nails of all sorts and sizes as well as spikes were available. Nails were used in particular to fasten the deck planks.”

Corruption and thieving were rife in the dockyards and remained so for many centuries; both in the administration, contracts etc (ie corruption of the well-to-do who ran the yards), and at a day to day level by the workers. Wages for ordinary shipwrights were low, though food and lodging allowances were often provided. For master shipwrights there were many supplements to the basic shilling a day.

Wages could fluctuate wildly, depending on many factors; and the men didn’t always get paid on time. Early in the reign of king Charles I, England was at war with Spain and France and, as the wars dragged on and the government coffers ran dry, the dockyards fell into chaos, and workers were not paid. The unpaid men stripped the ships and storehouses of anything they could cat or sell or burn for fuel. Accusations and rumour flew about, fed by envy and backbiting. The dominance of the Pett family, who were in control in all the Kentish yards, made one workman witness scared to speak out “for fear of being undone by the kindred”. In 1634 Phineas Pett was accused of inefficiency and dishonesty. The charges were dismissed at a hearing before the King and Prince of Wales but it was said that Pett was on his knees throughout the long trial. That same year the storekeeper at Deptford was charged with selling off the stores: he had not been paid for more than 14 years!

Over the centuries, the custom grew up of allowing the workmen to take home broken or useless pieces of wood, too small or irregular for shipbuilding, in theory to burn for fuel. This ‘perquisite’ of the job (or ‘perk’) was a part of their wage – in effect a way of paying the workers less in hard cash. These bits of wood were known as chips, giving an indication of the kind of size that was meant – originally pretty small, anything that could be carried over one arm. Over time, cheekiness, expectations and general resentment towards the bosses caused the offcuts being taken home to grow in size. By the 18th century the chips could be up to six feet in length, and the shipwrights had become brazen about their perks – often they would carry planks home on their shoulders, which was explicitly forbidden and considered theft. (Carrying ‘chips’ on your shoulder became a symbol of open defiance of the authorities… supposedly the origin of the term ‘chip on your shoulder’).

Canny shipwrights were having it away with ever larger pieces of wood, much of it far from broken… “Chips” were of obvious value for burning, when coal was scarce and expensive in Southern England. They were also used for building purposes: some old houses in dockyard towns can be observed to have an unusual, even suspicious, number of short boards used in their construction..!

By 1634 workmen were cutting up timber to make chips, carrying great bundles of them out three times a day, and even building huts to store their plunder. The right to chips was inevitably pushed to its limits, particularly when wages were low. Shipwrights took to sawing down full planks into ‘chips’ just below the maximum length – all when they were supposed to be working; and of nicking the seasoned wood, leaving green wood for the actual shipbuilding. The right was said to be cost the Royal Dockyards as much as £93,000 per year in 1726.

A lighter (a small transport vessel) was seized at Deptford containing 9,000 stolen wooden nails each about 18 inches long. The strong notion of customary rights was clearly expressed when the offender maintained that these were a lawful perk.

Not surprisingly, the shipyard bosses tried to restrict the taking of chips. They tried to replace the customary right with cash – paying the men an extra penny a day instead of chips. However the wrights simply took the penny and kept on carrying off the chips!
A regulation of 1753 specified that no more “chips” could be taken than could be carried under one arm. This provoked a strike at Chatham. Later, through precedent, this rule was resolved to specify “a load carried on one shoulder”.

The Navy Board was always ready to pay informers who would grass up thieving workers, but when two Deptford labourers asked for 150 guineas in return for information, they were told £25 was enough.

It wasn’t just wood that was being lifted. The list of abuses at the docks catalogued in 1729 included drawing lots for sail canvas which could be cut up and made into breeches. An informer said he had known 300 yards of canvas at a time to be taken by the master sail-maker. Bundles of “chips” could also conveniently be used to disguise the nicking of other materials; as could suspiciously baggy clothing. The Navy Board issued the following hilarious dress code regarding pilfering: “You are to suffer no person to pass out of the dock gates with great coats, large trousers , or any other dress that can conceal stores of any kind. No person is to be suffered to work in Great Coats at any time over any account. No trousers are to be used by the labourers employed in the Storehouse and if any persist in such a custom he will be discharged the yard.”

Women bringing meals into the yard for the workers in baskets, or allowed in to shipyards to collect chips for burning (much as rejected coal was gathered in mining areas) were often caught removing valuable items along with the “Chips” or more substantial bits of wood… This led to riots in Portsmouth in 1771 when the women were banned from entering the yard, having previously been allowed to collect offcuts on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

In a sudden search at all the dockyards that year, Deptford and Woolwich came out worst and the back doors of officers’ houses, which opened directly onto the dockyard, allowing for wholesale plundering of materials, were ordered to be bricked up.

Attempts to restrict or remove the right to take home chips provoked resistance, often in the form of strikes. In 1739, naval Dockyard workers at Deptford, Woolwich, and Chatham work in protest at the navy’s attempt to reduce night and tide work, the amounts of “chips” they could take as part of their wage, & over only being paid twice a year, often months in arrears. The navy backed down.

In October 1758, Deptford shipyard workers struck again, to prevent their ‘perquisites’ being removed. In 1764, marines were employed in the yard to dilute the skilled workforce; marines were also sent in in 1768, to break another strike over the threat to the shipwrights’ freebies; the wrights fought them off, however, and the Navy Board was forced to capitulate to the strikers.

A gallows & whipping post was erected to enforce the law against theft and rebellion – they were torn to pieces by the workforce.

In 1786, the conflict again provoked a strike, which seems to have begun on the 20th of October: “On Friday afternoon a meeting of a very alarming nature took place at Deptford amongst the Shipwrights; we are given to understand it arose about their perquisites of chips. About four o’clock they were got to such a pitch of desperation, that the whole town was in the utmost consternation imaginable, and it seemed as if the whole place was struck with one general panic. But happy for the security of his Majesty’s subjects, an officer dispatched a messenger for a party of the guards, which fortunately arrived at Deptford at six o’clock, which secured the peace for the moment, but were soon found insufficient, and a second express was instantly dispatched for an additional supply, these were found not capable of keeping the peace; at eleven o’clock all the troops from the Savoy that could be spared arrived, which, happy for the town of Deptford, secured the place and restored peace.” (Report from 25th October 1786)

There came a point at which the authorities decided that, whatever the unrest it might provoke, the perk had to be finally brought under control. This was achieved at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when in July 1801, in the middle of a series of large-scale shipwrights’ strikes at Deptford, the perquisite was replaced by ‘chip money’ of 6d a day for shipwrights and half that for labourers.

NB: The struggles over ‘chips’ were far from unique to Britain – 17th century naval administrators in Venice fought to prevent local shipbuilders making off with offcuts called ‘stelle’, and similarly eighteenth century French shipwrights in Toulon jealously guarded their ‘droits de copeaux’.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London industrial history, 1769: The Bold Defiance attack looms of silkweavers working below the agreed rate, Spitalfields.

Pretty much everyone has heard of the Luddites, although many people still have a misconception about the reasons why they destroyed machinery. The weavers of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Leicestershire smashed machine looms not because they were blindly opposed to progress, or afraid of new technology, but because the introduction of machinery was undermining the livelihoods of themselves and their communities. They viewed new technology through the eyes of artisans accustomed to a certain amount of autonomy: from being well-paid workers working mainly under their own terms, often in their own homes, they were being reduced to poverty, and clearly saw that mechanisation was transforming them into wage slaves, increasingly forced into factories. Their challenge to new technology was based on both desperation and self-interest: machine-weaving was benefitting the masters and increasing their profits, at the workers’ expense, but machines could be used to improve the lives of those who created the wealth, if their use was controlled by the workers themselves.

It’s all about who’s making the decisions, and in whose interests… A question of control, how new technological developments change our work, strengthening us or those who live off our labour; a question that remains alive and crucial today.

Less well known than the Luddites, though, another group of workers also fought the imposing of machinery and the factory system against their interests – the silk weavers of Spitalfields, in London’s East End. Four decades before the Luddite uprisings, the silkweavers’ long battle against mechanisation came to a head in violent struggles. Like the Luddites, their campaign was volatile and violent, and  was viciously repressed by the authorities. But their struggles were more complex and contradictory, in that sometimes they were battling their employers and sometimes co-operating with them; to some extent they won more concessions than their northern counterparts, holding off mechanisation for a century, and maintaining some control over their wages and conditions, at least for a while.

Spitalfields is one of the oldest inhabited parts of London’s East End, and one of the earliest to be built up as the fringes of the City of London spread outward. Described as City’s “first industrial suburb”, from the Middle Ages, Spitalfields, (together with neighbouring areas Bishopsgate and Shoreditch), was well known for industry, which was able to establish here outside the overcrowded City; but also for poverty, disorder and crime. Outside the City walls, outside the jurisdiction of City authorities, the poor, criminals, and outcast and rebellious clustered here.

From medieval times the area’s major employer has been the clothing trade; but breweries have also been major employers since 17th century, and later residents formed a pool of cheap labour for the industries of the City and East End: especially in the docks, clothing, building, and furniture trades. Small workshops came to dominate employment here.

The relationship between the affluent City of London and the often poverty and misery-stricken residents over its eastern border in Spitalfields has dominated the area’s history. More than half the poor in Spitalfields worked for masters who resided in the City in 1816; today the local clothing trade depends on orders from West End fashion shops… The same old social and economic relations continue…

For similar reasons as those that led to the growth of industry and slums here, the area has always been home to large communities of migrants. Many foreigners in the middle ages could not legally live or work inside City walls (due to restrictions enforced by the authorities or the guilds), leading many to settle outside the City’s jurisdiction. Successive waves of migrants have made their homes here, and dominated the life of the area: usually, though not always, the poorest incomers, sometimes competing for the jobs of the native population, at other times deliberately hired to control wages in existing trades… Huguenot silkweavers, the Irish who were set to work undercutting them, Jewish refugees from late nineteenth-century pogroms in east Europe, and the Bengalis who have settled in the area since the 1950s…

For centuries Silk Weaving was the dominant industry in Spitalfields and neighbouring areas like Bishopsgate, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, spreading as far as Mile End to the east, and around parts of Clerkenwell further west.

Silkweavers were incorporated as a London City Company in 1629. But many foreigners or weavers from northern England or other areas were not allowed to join the Company, and had problems working or selling their work as they weren’t members…

Silk production demanded much preparation before actual weaving began: throwing, where silk that has been reeled into skeins, is cleaned, twisted and wound onto bobbins, employed thousands in London already by the 1660s, though later throwing was dispersed to other towns.

In the early years weaving in Spitalfields was a cottage industry, with many independent workers labouring at home. This quickly developed into a situation with a smaller number of masters, who employed journeymen and a legally recognised number of apprentices to do the work. Numbers of workers, and training, in the Weavers Company were regulated by law and in the Company courts; later wages came to be a matter of dispute and the courts had to deal with this too.

Masters often sub-contracted out work to homeworkers, so that by the end of the 18th Century, many silkweavers were employed in their own homes, using patterns and silk provided by masters, and paid weekly. Later still there developed middlemen or factors, who bought woven silks at lowest prices and sold them to wholesale dealers. This led to lower wages for the weavers themselves.

A twentieth century account described the organisation of weaving in the area, based on reports from the previous century:

“The manufacturer procures his thrown ‘organzine’ and ‘tram’ either from the throwster or from the silk importers, and selects the silk necessary to execute any particular order. The weaver goes to the house or shop of his employer and receives a sufficient quantity of the material, which he takes home to his own dwelling and weaves at his own looms or sometimes at looms supplied by the manufacturer, being paid at a certain rate per ell. In a report to the Poor Law Commissioners in 1837 Dr. Kay thus describes the methods of work of a weaver and his family:-

A weaver has generally two looms, one for his wife and another for himself, and as his family increases the children are set to work at six or seven years of age to quill silk; at nine or ten years to pick silk; and at the age of twelve or thirteen (according to the size of the child) he is put to the loom to weave. A child very soon learns to weave a plain silk fabric, so as to become a proficient in that branch; a weaver has thus not unfrequently four looms on which members of his own family are employed…”

“The houses occupied by the weavers are constructed for the special convenience of their trade, having in the upper stories wide, lattice-like windows which run across almost the whole frontage of the house. These ‘lights’ are absolutely necessary in order to throw a strong light on every part of the looms, which are usually placed directly under them. Many of the roofs present a strange appearance, having ingenious bird-traps of various kinds and large birdcages, the weavers having long been famed for their skill in snaring song-birds. They used largely to supply the home market with linnets, goldfinches, chaffinches, greenfinches, and other song birds which they caught by trained ‘call-birds’ and other devices in the fields of north and east London.”

The wide high windows that shed enough light for their work can still be seen everywhere on older buildings around Spitalfields.

Although skilled, and often reasonably well-paid, the weavers could be periodically reduced to poverty; partly this was caused by depressions in cloth trade (one of the earliest recorded being that of 1620-40). “On the occurrence of a commercial crisis the loss of work occurs first among the least skilful operatives, who are discharged from work.” This, and other issues, could lead to outbreaks of rebelliousness: sometimes aimed at their bosses and betters, and sometimes at migrant workers seen as lowering wages or taking work away from ‘natives’.

For two hundred years, through the 17th and 18th centuries, the Silk Weavers of the East End conducted a long-running battle with their employers over wage levels, working conditions and increasing mechanisation in the industry. One early method of struggle was the ‘right of search’: a power won over centuries by journeymen weavers, and eventually backed by law, to search out and in some cases destroy weaving work done by ‘outsiders’, usually those working below the agreed wage rates, or by weavers who hadn’t gone through proper apprenticeships, by foreigners etc. Silkweavers used it, however, at several points from 1616 to 1675, to block the introduction of the engine loom with its multiple shuttles.

The journeymen weavers also had a history of support for radical groups, from the Leveller democrats of the English Civil War. through the 1760s populist demagogue John Wilkes, to the ‘physical force’ wing of the Chartist movement of the 1830s. This support arose partly from obvious causes – the weavers’ precarious position and sometimes uneven employment were always likely to draw a sizable number towards radical politics. But radical activists, like leveller leader John Lilburne, also camapaigned and agitated on behelf of the silkweavers, and populists like Wilkes easily tapped into their grievances… Their fierce collectivity in their own interests extended, for some, to a wider class consciousness; but also made them vulnerable to exploitation by manipulation by bosses and demagogues.

Through the later 17th to the late 18th century, the silkweavers regularly combined to fight for better conditions, often attacking masters employing machine looms, which they saw as leading to reduction of wages and dilution of their skills. At other times, the journeymen and masters united tactically to press for parliament to pass protectionist laws that kept prices for their finished goods high…

But by the 1760s tensions between masters and workers had grown to eruption point. Dissatisfaction over pay among journeymen silkweavers was increasing; and 7,072 looms were out of employment, with a slump in the trade partly caused by smuggling (carried on to a greater extent than ever). In 1762, the journeymen wrote a Book of Prices, in which they recorded the piecework rates they were prepared to work for (an increase on current rates in most cases). They had the Book printed up and delivered to the masters – who rejected it. Increasingly masters were turning to machine looms, and hiring the untrained, sometimes women and children, to operate them, in order to bypass the journeyman and traditional apprentices and their complex structure of pay and conditions.

As a result of the rejection of the Book, two thousand weavers assembled and began to break up looms and destroy materials,  and went on strike. There followed a decade of struggle by weavers against their masters, with high levels of violence on both sides.

Tactics included threatening letters to employers, stonings, sabotage, riots and ‘skimmingtons’ (mocking community humiliation of weavers working below agreed wage levels: offenders were mounted on an ass backwards & driven through the streets, to the accompaniment of ‘rough music’ played on pots and pans). The battle escalated to open warfare, involving the army, secret subversive groups of weavers, (known as ‘cutters’ for their tactic of slashing silk on offending masters’ looms), and ended in murder and execution. Some of these tactics had long roots in local history and tradition – others could have been imported with irish migrants from the Whiteboy movement in Ireland.

In 1763 thousands of weavers took part in wage riots & machine smashings, armed with cutlasses and disguised, destroying looms: “in riotous manner [they] broke open the house of one of their masters, destroyed his looms, and cut a great quantity of silk to pieces, after which they placed his effigy in a cart, with a halter about his neck, an executioner on one side, and a coffin on the other; and after drawing it through the streets they hanged it on a gibbet, then burnt it to ashes and afterwards dispersed.” [From the “Gentleman’s Magazine”, November 1763]

The military occupied parts of Spitalfields in response.

Riots and demonstrations continued in 1764-5… As a result of these riots, an Act was passed in 1765 declaring it to be felony and punishable with death to break into any house or shop with intent maliciously to damage or destroy any silk goods in the process of manufacture: this was to be used with devastating effect four years later.

In 1767 wage disputes broke out again: masters who had reduced piece rates had silk cut from their looms. At a hearing in the Weavers Court, in November that year, a case was heard, in which a number of journeymen demanded the 1762 prices from their Book be agreed. The Court agreed that some masters had caused trouble by reducing wages and ruled that they should abide by the Book. However this had little effect, and trouble carried on sporadically.

Trouble was also breaking out between groups of workers: single loom weavers and engine looms weavers were now at loggerheads. On 30 November 1767, “a body of weavers, armed with rusty swords, pistols and other offensive weapons, assembled at a house on Saffron-hill, with an intent to destroy the work of an eminent weaver without much mischief. Some of them were apprehended,  and being examined before the justices at Hicks-hall, it appeared that two classes of weavers were mutually combined to distress each other, namely the engine weavers and the narrow weavers. The men who were taken up were engine weavers, and they urged… that they only assembled in order to protect themselves from a party of the others who were expected to rise. As they had done no mischief, they were dismissed with a severe reprimand…”

The events of 1762-7 were, however, merely a curtain raiser, for the cataclysmic struggles of 1768-69. The ‘Cutters’ Riots’ saw a prolonged struggle, with bitter violence, rioting, intimidation of workers and threatening letters to employers, and hundreds of raids on factories and small workshops. Strikers in other trades joined in the mayhem: 1768. Crowds of weavers also forcibly set their own prices in the food markets, in defiance of high prices. It would end in shootouts in a pub, and executions.

In the Summer of 1769, some of the masters attempted to force a cut in rates of pay. In response, some journeymen banded together to organise resistance, forming secret clubs, including one allegedly called the Bold Defiance, (or Conquering and Bold Defiance, or the Defiance Sloop). This group met at the Dolphin Tavern in Cock Lane, (modern Boundary Street, in Bethnal Green).  The Bold Defiance started raising a fighting fund, as part of which they attempted to levy a tax on anyone who owned or worked a loom. Their methods of fund-raising bordered, shall we say, on extortion, expressed in the delivery to silk weaving masters of Captain Swing-style notes: “Mr Hill, you are desired to send the full donation of all your looms to the Dolphin in Cock Lane. This from the conquering and bold Defiance to be levied four shillings per loom.”

One major silk boss threatened by the cutters was Lewis Chauvet, whose factory stood in Crispin Street, Spitalfields. A leading manufacturer of silk handkerchiefs, who had already been involved in bitter battles against striking weavers in Dublin, Chauvet banned his workers from joining the weavers’ clubs or paying any levies, and organised a private guard on his looms. As a result, the cutters gathered in large numbers and tried to force Chauvet’s workers to pay up. Fights broke out and many people on both sides were badly hurt. Then, on the night of Thursday 17th August, the cutters assembled in gangs and went to the homes of Chauvet’s workers, cutting the silk out of more than fifty looms. Four nights later, on Monday 21st, they gathered in even greater numbers and cut the silk out of more than a hundred looms. Throughout the night the streets of Spitalfields resounded to the noise of pistols being fired in the air.

Chauvet’s response to this episode was to advertise a reward of £500 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. But for several weeks the people of Spitalfields remained silent, either for fear of the cutters, or because they did not wish to give evidence that might send a man to the gallows.

But on the 26th September, a minor master weaver, Thomas Poor, and his wife Mary, swore in front of a magistrate that their seven looms had been slashed by a group of cutters led by John Doyle and John Valline. However, before giving evidence they had inquire with Chauvet about receiving the reward – and Doyle had already been arrested, so they may have been prompted to name them… Certainly Doyle and Valline later protested their innocence.

On 30 September 1769, after a tip off from a master weaver who had had the squeeze put on him, magistrates, Bow St Runners and troops raided the Bold Defiance’ HQ at the Dolphin Tavern, finding the cutters assembled in an upstairs room, armed, and “receiving the contributions of terrified manufacturers.” A firefight started between the weavers and the soldiers and runners, which left two weavers (including a bystander) and a soldier dead; but the cutters escaped through the windows and over rooves. Four weavers who were drinking in the pub downstairs, and one found in bed upstairs were arrested, and held for a few weeks; though no-one was brought to court over the deaths.

But Valline and Doyle were convicted of the attack on the Poor’s looms and sentenced to death under the 1765 Act, despite very dubious identification evidence. They were hanged on the 6th December 1769, at corner of Bethnal Green Road and Cambridge Heath Road opposite the Salmon and Ball pub. Though Tyburn was the usual place of execution, the major silk manufacturers pressured the authorities to have them ‘scragged’ locally, to put the fear of god on the rebellious weavers. An organised attempt to free them was planned, and the men building the gallows were attacked with stones:

“There was an inconceivable number of people assembled, and many bricks, tiles, stones &c thrown while the gallows was fixing, and a great apprehension of a general tumult, notwithstanding the persuasion and endeavours of several gentlemen to appease the same. The unhappy sufferers were therefore obliged to be turned off before the usual time allowed on such occasions, which was about 11 o’clock; when, after hanging about fifty minutes they were cut down and delivered to their friends.”

Doyle and Valline were offed, proclaiming themselves not guilty of the silk cutting. After their execution the crowd tore down the gallows, rebuilt them in front of Chauvet’s factory/house here in Crispin Street, and 5,000 people gathered to smash the windows and burn his furniture.

Two weeks later on December 20th, more cutters were executed: William Eastman, William Horsford (or Horsfield) and John Carmichael. Horsfield had also been implicated by the Poors; Daniel Clarke, another silk pattern drawer and small employer, was paid by Chauvet to give evidence against Eastman, who he claimed had cut silk on Clarke’s looms. Clarke had previously tried to undercut agreed wage rates, and had it seems testified before against insurgent weavers, in his native Dublin. Clarke had originally told friends that he couldn’t identify the men who’d cut his silk, but after contact with Chauvet miraculously his memory changed. It’s possible Eastman was a cutters’ leader Chauvet wanted out of the way; Clarke also named one Philip Gosset, locally suggested to be the chairman of one of the cutters’ committees (Gosset, however, was never caught). Contradictory evidence, protests, a weavers’ march on Parliament to ask for pardon, all fell on deaf ears: the authorities were determined to make examples of the accused. This time, though, afraid of the local reaction after the riots that followed the deaths of Doyle and Valline, they were executed at Tyburn.

Although the repression quietened things down for a year or so, these hangings still had a twist to come. On 16th April 1771, the informer, Daniel Clarke was spotted walking through Spitalfields streets, and chased by a crowd of mainly women and boys, including the widow of William Horsford. He was finally caught, and dunked in the Hare Street Pond, a flooded gravel pit in Bethnal Green; the crowd stoned and abused him, and after they let him out of the pond he collapsed and died.

In Spitalfields this was widely seen as community justice – but the official ‘justices’ had to squash another open challenge to law and order. Two more weavers, Henry Stroud – William Eastman’s brother in law –  and Robert Campbell were hanged on July 8th for Clarke’s ‘murder’; once again, local punishment was deemed necessary to overawe the uppity weavers, and they were stretched in Hare Street. Horsford’s widow, Anstis, was also charged with murder, but wasn’t executed (possibly she was acquitted, I’ve had trouble following the case reports!). Witnesses had to be bribed to testify, and were attacked; Justice Wilmot, who arrested the two men, only just escaped the justice of an angry crowd, and a hundred soldiers had to be posted to ensure the hanging took place.

Although prices were fixed between masters and workers, nothing obliged the masters to keep to them. In 1773, further discontent broke out. Handbills circulated, addressed to weavers, coalheavers, porters and carmen (cartdrivers), to ‘Rise’ and petition the king. Silkweavers met at Moorfields on April 26th, incited by another handbill that read “Suffer yourselves no longer to be persecuted by a set of miscreants, whose way to Riches and power lays through your Families and by every attempt to starve and Enslave you…” Magistrates however met with them, and persuaded them to disperse, promising them a lasting deal.

This materialised in the form of the Spitalfields Acts. The first Act, in 1773, laid down that wages for journeymen weavers were to be set, and maintained, at a reasonable level by the local Magistrates, (in Middlesex) or the Lord Mayor or Aldermen (in the City). Employers who broke the agreed rate would be fined £50; journeymen who demanded more would also be punished, and silk weavers were prohibited from having more than two apprentices at one time. The Acts were renewed for 50 years, and ensured that some weavers, at least, had some security if income and protection for unscrupulous employers… The Acts’ abolition in the 1820s was a cause celebre for the laissez-faire capitalists of the days – and helped to drive silkweavers into catastrophic poverty and decimate the trade locally.

This post is a shortened version of ‘Bold  Defiance’, published as a pamphlet by past tense in 2012 and available from our website

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Today in London radical history, 1768: 2000 Thames watermen picket Royal Exchange & mansion house, 1768, over a decline in trade.

Ah, ’68, year of tumult, hope and rebellion.

No, not 1968 – 1768.

In London, in 1768, a number of movements came together, grew together, striking fear into the authorities, taking control of the streets. One dispute or flashpoint would influence another, spreading like wildfire… The authorities would attempt to repress some elements, but were afraid to move against other movements.

On the political level 1768 was a year of mass agitation and crowd violence in support of John Wilkes, a populist journalist, a rake of dubious morals, a scandal-mongering writer and agitator, who championed reform of the political system, but won support from both the City of London merchant elite and the ‘Mobility’, the swelling, insurgent and always altering London mob. Wilkes had already been jailed and banished in the early 1760s, for challenging the establishment by libeling the king; in 1768 he stood for election to Parliament for Middlesex, the huge (and consistently politically progressive) constituency north and west of London. Middlesex merged into London: huge crowds flocked there to support him, believing he had their interests at heart. The establishment fear of the potential that Wilkes and his supporters led to a crackdown on the crowds, including soldiers shooting and killing pro-Wilkes demonstrators.

This sparked riots at the hustings, and assaults on Wilkes’ pro-government opponents, which spread to general attacks on the rich and those who refused to light their windows in support of Wilkes. Pro-Wilkes marches became pitched battles, Wilkes was imprisoned…

But Wilkes’ pro-reform and incendiary speeches got him barred from entering the house of Commons, even when elected (he was to be ruled ineligible several times, but re-elected each time).

1768 was also a year of starvation: “the price of bread had doubled. The price of meat had increased by a third. Crowds forced street-vendors to sell vegetables at reasonable prices. The Whitechapel butchers ‘suffered prodigiously’. Elsewhere, butchers ‘were oblig’d to secrete their meat’. Corn-factors were attacked and their wagons stopped. The corn-dealers hid their plate, boarded up their coffee-houses, and closed the Stock Exchange…”

As rising food prices sparked protests, and food riots, a wave of disputes swept London, especially in the East End, over wages, over working conditions and how work was regulated and controlled. Trade after trade erupted into stoppage and demonstration. “The sailors and the glass-grinders petitioned, shoemakers held mass meetings and the bargemen stopped work. The leaders of the tailors were imprisoned for ‘Irritating their Brethren to Insurrection, abusing their Masters, and refusing to work at the stated prices.’”

The political and economic turbulence mingled and sometimes merged; many of the workers in the London trades supported Wilkes, and marched for him… Though in reality, he was only ever mainly interested in the promotion of himself, and his image as the outrageous critic of the monarchy and government, darling of the mob, and would always balk at encouraging violence. [He would end his days as comfortably, and respectable, having served as MP, alderman, Sherriff and Lord Mayor of London, (where he admittedly did work to improve legal protection for prisoners, servants and workers) and taken up arms to command soldiers to shoot down the people who had once been his constituency, the mob attacking the Bank of England during the 1780 Gordon Riots. It’s not just the ‘reactionary populists’ we need to beware of…]

To add to the fears of the ruling classes in 1768, there was unrest and rumours of sedition in the army: “Soldiery may become a political Reverbatory Furnace”… If a regime loses the army, revolt can become revolution. But in the end widespread flogging and repression in the ranks kept soldiers from mainly joining the swirling maelstrom….

The most dangerous disputes from the point of view of the authorities were the wage disputes and battles over mechanisation among the Spitalfields Silkweavers, and the work stoppage by the coal-heavers on the London docks. The silkweavers had been rebelling against wage cuts and increased use of machine looms for nearly a decade, but it was rising to fever pitch, with wage-cutting masters facing sabotage of their looms, intimidation of workers agreeing to low pay, and the formation of clubs of ‘cutters’ branching out into extortion of employers. It would climax the following year with gunfire and the army occupation of Spitalfields.

The coalheavers’ dispute was even more violent. Unloading and moving coal was dirty, backbreaking, and utterly vital for the city to function; wages were low and the trade was organised by magistrates linked to the powerful city merchants. A wage dispute in spring 1768 led to serious violence between strikers and scabs, with pitched battles, arson, murder and hangings. The strike spread to the sailors on ships in the London docks, and became even fiercer.

The disorder and atmosphere of general combination and collective action spread. At any one time throughout the year, but especially between April and July, there seem to have been a cross-hatching of diverse, if often overlapping, crowds, roaming the City, attempting to bargain with employers, impose of negotiate new wages or conditions, as well as bashing opponents of Wilkes. No doubt there was an element of opportunist looting, agro and turbulence mixed in as well. And why not?

Many of the numerous London trades got in on the action.

On the 9th May 1768, “a numerous body of watermen assembled before the mansion House, and laid their complaint before the lord mayor, who advised them, to appoint proper persons to draw up a petition to Parliament, which his lordship promised he would present; upon which they gave him three huzzas and went quietly home. The same night a mob of another kind assembled before the Mansion-house, carrying a gallows with a boot hanging to it, and a red cap; but on some of the ringleaders being secured by the peace-officers, the rest dispersed.” (Gentlemen’s Magazine, 1768)

The watermen were partly cabbies of the day, rowing people up and down the Thames, and across from London and Westminster to the south bank of the river. London’s lack of bridges and rolling marshy landscape to the south and east were perfect for access by boat and the Thames was the main thoroughfare for all kinds of traffic. When there was just London Bridge spanning the Thames, their monopoly on people getting around on/over the water made them powerful. In the 16th century, the Watermen’s Company, was set up, with power to

to set tariffs and reduce accidents, and with jurisdiction over all watermen plying between Windsor (in Berkshire) and Gravesend (in Kent). The Act allowed the London mayor and aldermen to yearly choose eight of the “best sort” of watermen to be company rulers, and to make and enforce regulations: this obviously created a hierarchy with links to the City powers.

Watermen now had to serve a seven-year apprenticeship in order to gain an encyclopaedic knowledge of the complex water currents and tides on the Thames. Watermen freeman were also ordered to pay quarterage – paid quarterly contributions. This was a constant source of grievance and dispute with company rulers who were frequently accused of taking bribes to “free” apprentice watermen.

As in many of the London guilds and companies, the watermen experienced an internal struggle between the company elite and the grassroots over working conditions, and representation, who controlled the trade and set the rules. This had forced the introduction of a form of indirect democracy in 1642, seeing the watermen at the 55 “leading towns and stairs” empowered to each year choose representatives, who would in turn propose candidates to become company rulers. This form of government survived, with vicissitudes, until a new Act of Parliament in 1827 restored an oligarchical rule within the company.

Through these struggles, in a kind of proto-trade union movement, Thames watermen developed tactics that both promoted the trade and encouraged collective organisation, notably the use of petitions or “petitions of grievances”. They won important concessions above and beyond the immediate trade: pointedly, in 1644, they were exempted from land service—the use of watermen in land armies—as a direct result of their pressure (the flip side of this was their tendency to be persuaded or forced into naval service, because of their skills on the water).

Their ability to get together and bargain collectively became legendary, and influenced the way they dealt with authority.

The 1768 protest should be seen in a context of a changing river and altering city. More bridges were gradually being built across the river; more non-company watermen were active, and this was all having an effect on the rate watermen were able to command. This was only to get worse in the following century, as more bridges were built, railways and road transport mushroomed, and steam power revolutionised water travel. The watermen’s hold over Thames trips was soon broken.

It is also worth noting that while famous for their collective defence of their trade in their own interests, the watermen also had a general reputation for patriotism… Not so dissimilar from the black cab drivers of our own era… ? Not sure which newspaper the 1760s watermen mostly read though.

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Today in London trade history: master tailors go to court to restrict rights of their workers, 1415

In London, as in many other cities, the middle ages saw work and its rules and regulations codified in trade Guilds, composed of workmen from specific trades and crafts. Their purpose was to defend the interests of the trade, regulate the quality of workmanship and the training of new members, and provide support and welfare for their members. Established by charter and regulated by the City of London, London’s guilds also provided a political voice to their members, who as freemen of the City had the right to elect members of the Court of Aldermen and Common Council. London had eighty-nine guilds in the eighteenth century, ranked according to a hierarchy of precedence with the twelve Great Companies at the top. The powers of the guilds to regulate economic activity declined substantially in the eighteenth century, and their primary functions were increasingly confined to providing social prestige, business contacts and a political voice to their members. They also provided substantial charity to their members, partly funded by large charitable bequests which they administered.

Membership in a guild could be taken up in one of three ways: by completing a seven year apprenticeship, by patrimony (if one’s father was a member of the company), or by redemption (payment of a fee). None of these routes of entry ensured that the member would actually practice the company’s trade. Owing to the Custom of London, members of London guilds could practise any trade in the City. Consequently, even though a completed apprenticeship remained the most common route to membership, guilds often included numerous members who did not actually practice the relevant trade. The ratio of members practising the craft to others varied from guild to guild, with the less prestigious guilds such as the Carpenters’ Company having a larger number of practicing craft members. Other companies, such as the Grocers’, Fishmongers’, and Goldsmiths’, had many fewer practising members, and, owing to the high cost of admission, became “little more than gentleman’s clubs”.

Most guilds were composed of men from a mixture of social backgrounds. Apprentices were almost invariably young and came from both relatively poor and wealthy homes. Journeymen, craftsmen who had finished their apprenticeship but had not set up an independent business, were relatively poorly paid. Master craftsmen ran anything from a small one-man workshop to a thriving business with several apprentices, journeymen, and partners in other trades. By the eighteenth century most guilds did not include women, though sometimes widows who took over their husbands’ businesses became members by default, and took over the training of their husbands’ apprentices. Even in this instance, women were excluded from participation in company business.

Guilds were normally governed by a master, two wardens, and a Court of Assistants, which set policies, oversaw the administration of company properties, and governed the distribution of charitable funds.

But the Medieval guilds, while designed to unite trades vertically, were themselves inevitably split by class struggle. The interests of the masters and more prosperous employers diverged from those of the journeymen who worked for them, and the apprentices who were learning the job.

Journeymen’s resentment at working conditions, poor pay and lack on control over their work sparked attempts to get together, organise, demand change… this was met by guild hierarchies and the masters, to repress this organisation by the ‘servants’ of the guild.

Against this background the lower orders or ‘yeomanry’ of City companies like the founders, tailors, curriers, bakers and clothworkers fought running battles with the livery over elections to guild positions and the posts of aldermen in London’s council, over control of charitable funds for the poor and use of the right of search.

The Merchant Tailors Guild was notable among these struggles. For centuries one of crafts where organisation among the lower orders was most active.

Tailors were often seen as radical, politically, by tradition… it has been suggested that radical politics often flourished among tailors partly due to their working in quiet conditions, often one or two in a house or workshop, with time to think, discuss ideas… But economics also probably played a large part – in a trade where piece work was the norm, work was very subject to ups and downs of general prosperity, seasons, trade depressions, the imports of cloth…

The early fifteenth century saw legal moves by master tailors to shut down autonomy and ‘combinations’ among journeymen and apprentices. On 19 April 1415, masters challenged in court the right of their servants’ to live in their own dwellings, assemble and meet together freely, and to belong to their own separate fraternity. These yeomen possibly lived in “3 Shears Court,” described by Stowe in his Survey as lying adjacent to the church of St. James’, Garlick Hill.

The masters complained that the journeymen tailors were living in their own dwellings “by themselves alone in companies,” against the licence or will of the Master, and “without head or government.” Woo. Dangerous.

Not only that, but they had ‘behaved in an unruly manner, and that allowing them their own fraternity or gatherings ‘would lead to disturbances, as similar assemblies of the same mistery had done before’.

Two of the offenders were summoned to appear before the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, who adjudged “that the servants of the foresaid trade shall be hereafter under government and rule of the Master and Wardens of the aforesaid trade, as other servants of other trades in the said City are, and are bound by law to be, and that they shall not use henceforth livery or dress, meetings or conventicles, or other unlawful things of this kind.”

The masters thus won the case; ‘yoman taillours’ were subsequently only permitted to gather within the church of St John in the presence of their masters. Clearly there was already a dissident faction among the journeymen and apprentices, and they had been agitating prior to this court case…

The court case didn’t end the tailors’ struggles. Two years later in August 1417, the journeymen “as a Brotherhood of Yeoman Tailors,” approached the Lord Mayor for permission to assemble “on the Feast of the Decollation of St. John the Baptist next following and so henceforth yearly, in the church of St. John of Jerusalem, near Smythfield, there to offer for the deceased brothers and sisters of the said brotherhood, and to do other things which they have been accustomed to do there”. However, this proposal, while sounding innocuous, must have implied dangerous and rebellious tendencies – the masters objected, and the Court thought fit to “order and consider that in future times no servant or apprentice of the said trade shall presume by themselves to make or enter assemblies or conventicles at the foresaid church of St. John or elsewhere, unless with and in presence of the Masters of the said trade, etc., on pain of imprisonment and fine.”

Any gathering not overseen by the guild hierarchy was basically suspect.

In the 1440s the struggle between the lower orders of the tailors and their masters was to erupt into serious revolt. The wealthy masters were attempting to strengthen their rights to examine journeymen’s work, and prosecute those ‘guilty of defective work, while the ‘yeomen’ clamoured to be able to elect their own representatives to the ranks of the City Aldermen. Alliances were made between the journeymen across guild lines, and in 1443 a conspiracy was supposedly quashed, in which 2000 armed artisans were planning to riot in support of a demand to be admitted to the process of electing aldermen and the mayor. However, the masters were better organised, and not only was this plot defused, but journeymen tailors and their allies in other guilds in fact faced defeat, with previously held rights lost, a situation that lasted decades for centuries. But the journey men tailors would maintain a stubborn resistance to their betters, organising in secret, evolving fraternities and clubs to agitate for better wages and conditions… So formidable that this network would be labeled the ‘tailor’s republic’ in the 18th century

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Today in London’s penal history:John Smith gets 7 years in Newgate, for involvement in destruction of Dingley’s Sawmill. 1769.

On May 10th 1768, Dingley’s Steam-powered Sawmill in Limehouse was burnt down by 500 sawyers, who claimed it was putting them out of work.

This was a highly organised act; decided on collectively beforehand. When the sawyers marched on the Mill, Christopher Robertson, Dingley’s clerk, confronted the crowd and asked them what they wanted. “They told me the saw-mill was at work when thousands of them were starving for want of bread. I then represented to them that the mill had done no kind of work that had injured them, or prevented them receiving any benefit. I desired to know which was their principal man to whom I might speak. I had some conversation with him and represented to him that it had not injured the sawyers. He said it partly might be so, but it hereafter would if it had not; and they came with a resolution to pull it down, and down it should come.”

The mill, the first steam-powered sawmill to open in London, had been operating since early 1767, but the installation of new machinery there during a slack period in the trade when large numbers of sawyers were out of work pushed them into action. On May 6th, the sawyers had sent a communiqué to Dingley, announcing that they intended to stop the mill working. If he didn’t take it seriously, he soon learned his mistake…

Traditionally, sawyers had many privileges, perks of the job, notably the right to take and use offcut wood (especially in shipbuilding). This perk tended to be exploited liberally – management accused the sawyers of often abusing the custom, and making off with huge lengths of wood. Hence sawyers’ houses could often be better built than they financially could afford! However, sawyers’ wages were also generally considered relatively high.

The steam mill was clearly intended to gradually impose a more disciplined industrial process and do away with the perks and customary rights. While owner Charles Dingley received compensation from the government, and completed the rebuilding of the mill, it didn’t seem to re-open: in 1795 it was described as having been standing empty for many years. A generation passed before another such attempt to replace the sawyers’ labour was made in London.

Like the contemporary Spitalfields silk-weavers, and the Luddites after them, the London sawyers were able to clearly see how new technology was being used against them, and made rational decisions to defend existing wages, conditions and customs with a bit of sabotage: collective bargaining by riot and vandalism.

The mill’s owner, Charles Dingley, was considered an ally of the government, and had been ‘radical’ demagogue John Wilkes unpopular opponent in the Middlesex elections: he couldn’t even get near the hustings some days, being kept out and abused by Wilkes-supporting crowds, and was beaten up by Wilkes’ lawyer. He is generally said to have ‘died of shame’ at being so vilified.

On January 9th the following year, one John Smith was tried at the Middlesex magistrates Court (‘Hicks Hall’), for ‘riotously assembling with others’ to destroy the mill, and sentenced to seven years imprisonments in Newgate, to pay a fine, and to enter into recognisance for his good behaviour.

Interestingly, three years later, one John Green was petitioning the Treasury to receive a reward for having arrested John Smith.

Edward Castle had previously been tried in July 1768 for Riot and Breaking the Peace for the attack on the mill, but had been acquitted.

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Today in London’s radical history: coalheavers riot in river strike, Wapping, 1768.

“A desperate fray happened at Wapping among several gangs of coalheavers; many persons were wounded, and several houses almost destroyed.” (Annual Register, 15th April, 1768)

Ah, ’68… year of riot, uprising and turbulence… No 1768, not 1968…

London, in 1768, seemed poised on the brink of apocalyptic revolt, as hunger, poverty and political agitation almost merged to give birth to revolution… Like 1381, 1649, 1780, 1889 during the dock strike, or 1919, was it a possible ‘revolutionary moment missed’, as we once wrote in a calendar? This may be going too far, for 1768, but it’s true that a number of movements came together, or co-existed, striking fear into the authorities, taking control of the streets, and one dispute or flashpoint would influence another, like wildfire…

On the political level ’68 was a year of mass agitation and crowd violence in support of John Wilkes, the rakish journalist, a scandal-mongering champion for reform of the political system, who won support from both the City of London merchant elite and the ‘Mobility’, the swelling, insurgent and always altering London mob. Wilkes had already been jailed and banished for challenging the establishment; in 1768 he was standing for election to Parliament for Middlesex, the huge (consistently politically progressive) constituency north and west of London, near enough for huge crowds to flock there and support him, leading to riots at the hustings, and assaults on Wilkes’ pro-government opponents. But his views got him barred from entering the house of Commons, even when elected (he was to be ruled ineligible several times, but re-elected each time). Pro-Wilkes marches became pitched battles, demonstrators were shot by the militia, Wilkes was imprisoned…

But 1768 was also a year of starvation: “the price of bread had doubled. The price of meat had increased by a third. Crowds forced street-vendors to sell vegetables at reasonable prices. The Whitechapel butchers ‘suffered prodigiously’. Elsewhere, butchers ‘were oblig’d to secrete their meat’. Corn-factors were attacked and their wagons stopped. The corn-dealers hid their plate, boarded up their coffee-houses, and closed the Stock Exchange…”

As rising food prices sparked protests, a wave of disputes swept London, especially in the East End, over wages, over working conditions and how work was regulated and controlled. Trade after trade erupted into stoppage and demonstration. “The sailors and the glass-grinders petitioned, shoemakers held mass meetings and the bargemen stopped work. The leaders of the tailors were imprisoned for ‘Irritating their Brethren to Insurrection, abusing their Masters, and refusing to work at the stated prices.’”

The political and economic turbulence mingled and sometimes merged; many of the workers in the London trades supported Wilkes, and marched for him… Though he was only ever mainly interested in the promotion of himself, and his image as the outrageous critic of the monarchy and government, darling of the mob, and would always balk at encouraging violence. He would end his days as comfortably, and almost respectable, having served as MP, alderman, Sherriff and Lord Mayor of London, (where he admittedly did work to improve legal protection for prisoners, servants and workers) and taken up arms to command soldiers to shoot down his former supporters attacking the Bank of England during the Gordon Riots. It’s not just the ‘reactionary populists’ we need to beware of…

To add to the fears of the ruling classes, there was talk of unrest in the army: “Soldiery may become a political Reverbatory Furnace”. If a regime loses the army, revolt can become revolution. Widespread flogging and repression in the ranks kept them from joining the swirling maelstrom….

The most dangerous disputes from the point of view of the authorities were the wage disputes and battles over mechanisation among the Spitalfields Silkweavers, and the work stoppage by the coal-heavers on the London docks. The silkweavers had been rebelling against wage cuts and increased use of machine looms for nearly a decade, but it was rising to fever pitch, with wage-cutting masters facing sabotage of their looms, intimidation of workers agreeing to low pay, and the formation of clubs of ‘cutters’ branching out into extortion of employers. It would climax the following year with gunfire and the army occupation of Spitalfields.

The coalheavers’ dispute was even more violent. As related in a previous post, for centuries one of the hardest jobs on the London docks was coalheaving: unloading coal from ships to warehouses from where it was sent off to fuel the City and industrial expansion. Coal lay at the heart of eighteenth century London life: not only was warmth, like food, basic to survival, but industry, business and commerce all needed coal to function.

Coal heaving, unloading coal from ships bringing it to London, was hard work, low paid, backbreaking; the heavers had a reputation for disorder and thieving, but faced harsh conditions which they were forced to combat in various ways. The work was centred on Wapping and Shadwell; Gangs of heavers were often controlled and organised by powerful City merchants and local publicans.

The heavers work patterns were being altered to speed up unloading of coal; ‘middlemen’, called undertakers, organised them into work-gangs, which worked to the interests of the coal-ship owners. But under the 1757 Coal Act, the coal heavers’ work was overseen by the aldermen magistrates of Billingsgate Ward, who registered the men, maintained a sickness and burial fund and regulated wages. By 1768 the magistracy was divided between a paternalist faction, interested in continuing protection of the workers (though with social peace and the maintenance of supply also at heart), and the representatives of the ship-owners, and large coal merchants… The latter were headed up by William Beckford, alderman of Billingsgate, largest sugar plantation owner (and thus slave-owner) in Jamaica. Beckford, ‘King of Jamaica’, twice Lord Mayor of London, MP for the City, was concerned to reduce the coalheavers independence to as near to the level of his Caribbean slaves as he could. Beckford is also where the links between the political and economic disturbances of 1768 come round full circle, since he was a stalwart supporters of Wilkes, a leader of the movement for reform in the City of London which saw sweeping changes to the corruption and inefficiency of the old regime as necessary for the unfettered growth of business interests and the pursuit of profit.

The confused mishmash of loyalties and interests here is typical of the time; perhaps some saw clearer than others, however, as striking sailors would by May 1768 sign a declaration ‘No W-. No K-‘ … No Wilkes, No King, breaking with the general support of the organised London workers for Wilkes… Why, isn’t certain: had they seen through the fundamental difference in interests?

Beckford backed the ‘undertakers’ who ran taverns in Wapping and Shadwell where heavers had to collect their wages and the gangs were also organised. “The tavern, even more than the parish, was the elemental unit of social life in London. The arduous nature of coal-heaving necessitated a close relationship with beer. The organisation of coal-heaving gangs, no less, required the public house. Since taverns were places of food and drink, control of them, especially during times of scarcity, was control of the river proletariat.”

The wage dispute erupted into open warfare, and the taverns were often the battlefield; heavers met in rival inns and mobbed the ones run by the gangmasters. Two ‘clerks’ (alderman’s aides), Metcalf and Green,hired by Beckford, ran taverns, organised the work, and drove down wages and conditions by hiring starving men from Ireland. The riverside was filled with Irish migrants (so many lived around one stretch of what is now Cable Street it was nicknamed ‘Knockfergus’)

But revolt against this evolved among the Irish workers, and the underground groupings of rural self-protection and resistance to British landlords in Ireland may have been used to build organised opposition on the docks. A wage dispute broke out and heavers stopped work. Scab labour was sent in from Green’s Roundabout Tavern (on Gravel Lane, now Garnet Street), and Metcalf’s Salutation Inn. In February 1768, the latter pub was gutted, and the war stepped up, as the undertakers allied with the constables and backed by Beckford pushed out the paternalist magistrate, Hodgson.

In April the Roundabout tavern was attacked by coalheavers with guns, fire was exchanged: “A shoemaker bled to death on the pavement; a coalheaver took a bullet in the head, ‘dropped down backwards, and never stirred more.’” This may be the same incident reported as taking place on April 15th in the Annual Register, but gunfire against scab taverns and those pubs where the striking heavers met was frequent for weeks. Green was charged with murder after these deaths, (seemingly the divisions within the magistracy were continuing), but he was acquitted.

The coalheavers were joined in May by sailors working the ships in the docks, agitating for higher wages, and ‘striking’ (lowering) the sails to prevent ship movement. The paralysis of work on the river became so overwhelming that ‘strike’ became general usage for refusing to work… and henceforth…

Further violence on board ships acting as scab labour in May brought mass repression, splitting the sailors and coalheavers; after a sailor was killed in battle on board a scab ship, several coal heavers were hanged, and the strikes were defeated… The army occupied the area to prevent further outbreaks, and ensure coal unloading carried on (two soldiers were murdered for unloading themselves).

In the end the massive agitation and riotous insurgency of 1768 peaked and declined, mostly in the face of massive state repression. The coalheavers continued to be unruly, if never again so effective. The Spitalfields silkweavers would also face vicious clamp-down after they became uncontrollable – but a few years later they would force the state to guarantee their wages, in a paternalist concession that would last 50 years. The class warfare against the changes in working conditions of course continued, though increasingly in other, less violent, forms.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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