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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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 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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Today in London radical history: Visteon workers occupy their factory, Enfield, 2009.

A Post-Fordist struggle

Report & reflections on the UK Ford-Visteon dispute 2009

NB: This is a long post. No apologies. It was written by a supporter of the Visteon occupation shortly after it ended, (a longer version of an article originally written on request for the Wildcat group in Germany) and published online (on libcom) as well as put out as a free pamphlet by past tense. It’s worth re-posting in its entirety. 

In June 2000 Ford Motor Company outsourced the production of certain component parts to a new company called Visteon – in reality a spin off company of Ford and in which Ford retained a 60% holding. Visteon runs factories all over the globe: in America, Europe and Asia, for example. In England a deal between the Ford company and the union promised all former Ford workers – now employees of Visteon – that they would keep the same wage and pension conditions they’d had with Ford (ie, mirrored conditions). But all newly hired Visteon workers were employed under inferior contracts.

On 31st of March 2009 Ford/Visteon announced the closure of three factories in the UK and the sacking of 610 workers(1). The company was declared insolvent and put into receivership. The receivers visited all three plants; with no prior warning workers were sacked with only a few minutes notice and told only that the company had gone bust. No guarantees were given concerning redundancy or pensions payments. The management had made the workers work up to the last minute, knowing that they would not even receive any wages for their final shifts.

On the 31st workers in Belfast responded to the closure announcement by occupying their factory spontaneously. After a clash with security guards, workers secured the building and within two hours several hundred local supporters had visited the occupation. Two KPMG administrators were on the premises at the time of the occupation and refused to leave. So the workers locked them in a portakabin – where they apparently stayed for 36 hours with no food, before finally agreeing to leave! Such pointless dedication to their job… Some managers’ cars also remained locked in the occupation.

Having heard the news about Belfast, the Basildon (Essex), and Enfield (north London) Visteon plants also occupied the next day. The Basildon plant contained no stock or machinery of much value to the company; so the workers trashed the site offices. A group of riot cops appeared and the workers were ‘pursuaded’ to end their occupation, presumably under the threat of ‘leave or you’ll be nicked for criminal damage’. They then began 24hr picketing of the plant.

At Enfield the workers were called to a meeting and within six minutes had been made redundant. They were told they could return the next day to collect belongings from lockers. But the next day (April Fools Day) the security guards refused them entry; no doubt on instructions of the company now alerted to the Belfast occupation. After 40 mins waiting – and inspired by Belfast – they decided to also occupy. Knowing where there was an unlocked gate, they returned to the factory and managed to secure part of it for themselves; about 100 workers occupied the paint-shop and the roof.

The character of the dispute at the three plants was determined by local conditions; at Belfast many workers lived close to the plant and had strong links with the immediate local community, having shown solidarity to many local causes over the years. So they were provided with plenty of practical support; within hours local people and shops were providing food and other resources for the occupiers. Unlike the other plants, Belfast was also demanding that the plant be reopened and their jobs saved (though maybe few saw this as a very likely outcome).

West Belfast MP Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein backed the Belfast occupation from the beginning. As one Belfast supporter explained;
“The workforce in Visteon/Ford Belfast was 50-50 Catholic and Protestant so this was not an issue in terms of workplace make-up. However, the plant is in a part of west Belfast that is almost 100% Catholic and while the plant has huge support from both sides of the community, west Belfast is particularly politicised and republican – so Gerry Adams, neccessarily being a populist, jumped behind the campaign. If the plant was in east Belfast, which is mostly Protestant, I very much doubt he’d give a fuck.”

Despite Sinn Fein’s behaviour – typical of a party committed to managing the capitalist economy – of courting bosses to encourage capital investment in the region, Adams could hardly ignore such an issue at the heart of his voter constituency.

At Basildon and Enfield workers travelled from a wide area in and close to London to work there. At Enfield many of the generally middle-aged workers – a lot of them women – had worked for Ford/Visteon for 20-30 years, and had seen the factory shrink from 2,000 to 227 workers, after spark plug and electronic production was relocated to other factories – some of them as far away as Turkey or South Africa. The workers had a diverse composition; about half of them born in India, Sri Lanka, Italy, the Carribean and so on.

[Note; the rest of this account concentrates mainly on the Enfield plant, as this is where we were involved as supporters.]

Workers at all plants were members of the Unite union. From the start at Enfield, Unite’s only contact point and involvement was via the factory’s convenors(2). Some union bosses came down briefly to pledge support, but actually delivered nothing, apart from poor legal advice. The occupiers were left to sustain themselves – despite workers paying years of union subs, no money was given (after 3 weeks or so, it is rumoured that the union finally provided a little finance). The union gave no mention on its website of the dispute, nor encouraged their members to give active support. So all the resources needed to sustain the occupation and picketing were provided by workers and supporters.

At Enfield, local support was very weak – though close to a working class residential area, the plant was separated across a main road on an industrial estate and the workplace, as commuters, did not have the same immediate local links as Belfast. So despite thousands of leaflets being distributed to locals, it brought very little response or involvement. This is a sign of the times and a symptom of 25 years of defeats in class struggles; people are now far less likely to recognise themselves and their own common interests in the struggles of others – solidarity has become an alien concept for many in an increasingly atomised reality. The working class has become largely a fragmented, individualised class in itself rather than a class acting for itself with any great unity. Part of the optimism over recent UK workers’ struggles is that they may be the early signs of overcoming this long and weary fragmentation that has so changed the atmosphere in the UK since the defeat of the 1984-85 Miners Strike.

For most workers it was the first time in their life that they had to deal with complicated legal matters. At the beginning they relied on legal experts provided by the union – who turned out to be quite useless; it was activists with squatting experience who informed the occupiers that squatting was not illegal but merely unlawful (an important legal distinction defining severity of potential consequences).

The Basildon workers found documentary evidence suggesting that the closures had been planned for years, that the spin off of Visteon from Ford may been have part of a long term plan as the most convenient and cost-effective way of closing unprofitable parts of the business. Further evidence of long-term planning was shown by the fact that the management had protected their pensions by secretly moving them to another fund. Evidence was also found that one of the bosses had intentions to reopen the plant with cheaper labour later; so they paid a visit to this boss’s country mansion. Unfortunately he was not at home and Visteon had already provided his house with security guard protection. The workers delivered a letter expressing their demands. (Video here: http://libcom.org/news/video-visteon-factory-occupation-workers-go-bosss-house-08042009)

Protest or class struggle?

The occupation coincided with the G20 protests in London’s City financial centre, where around 10,000 activists gathered to express their anti-capitalism to the gathered world leaders. The City protests were leafletted to inform protestors of the Enfield occupation, but to little reponse. As was later commented on an internet forum:
“It was a real contrast to see how much energy and resources went into the organising of the G20 protests compared to how much support the Visteon occupation was given. This is partly an indication of the difference in priority, for some, given to activist protest on the one hand and class struggle on the other – and partly that many useful G20 resources [which could have been used at the occupation and, later, picket] had already returned to their sources outside London. […] The occupation’s been going for about 10 days now, and I doubt there’s ever been much more than 300 people outside the factory, including workers, family and friends, and SWP. In comparison with the thousands at G20, not all of whom, it’s true, live in London; but many of whom are not ‘class warriors’ either and reject such an outlook.”

Activists sometimes complain that unions, the state etc try to isolate struggles – but some people’s political ideology does the job without any outside help.

In occupation

The occupation organised itself in an informal way – familiar workmates now found themselves together – but with their use and relation to the workplace transformed. Tasks were organised and carried out as needed and according to abilities.

Out of a total workforce of 227, the occupation was maintained by a hardcore of 70-80 ex-workers, plus a handful of supporters. One occupier, a libertarian socialist pensioner involved from the start of the occupation, described conditions;
“70 or so people sleeping in a paint shop , on work benches or the floor, or in chairs, is clearly a difficult position, Some were even without sleeping bags. People kipped down anywhere , though many of the women used a cubby hole that was both warmer and darker than outside,. The lights were always on, as some people were awake to ensure the barricaded entrances were safe. I slept on a work bench. Many people went home for washes or showers , and a soft mattress. Others stayed put, making do with baby-wipes for the time being.” […]
“Food. At first we were overwhelmed with food, specially bread and milk. S and D who ran the “canteen “area, kept everything in its place. The toaster and two microwaves were in frequent use. The area was very crowded especially in the evening when those on the roof came down.” […]
“The food was soon systematically organised.” […] “S P , chair of the Shop Stewards Committee, who had been in a family catering concern, would start early at home and cook up breakfasts for the 70 or so people who were here on average. This was home cooked food and high quality too.
The same was even more true of the evening meal . T. would go home and cook up two or three delicious chefs bowls of curry, rice , pasta or what ever. This was really high quality. Selected contents, without the strong tasting ingredients of restaurants, was eagerly eaten and many had second helpings as well. It was excellent compensation for the hardship.” 
(Ford Visteon Workers Occupation – an eyewitness account and first thoughts; Alan Woodward, CopyLeft, Gorter Press, c/o PO Box 45155, London N15 4SL.)

As the occupation continued, a support network emerged; a rally was called on the 4th day of occupation, a Saturday. Afterwards a meeting was called among the broadly anarchist and libertarian activists. A Support Group was set up, largely (but not exclusively) based around the existing Haringey Solidarity Group, a libertarian community activist grouping. For the rest of the occupation and subsequent 24hr pickets, it was this hardcore of around 15-20 people who provided most of the support to the ex-workers. This was important; the workers have stated that it was the surprising support they received that sustained them in their struggle. Leafletting, fundraising, publicity and picketing was all done as co-operative efforts between ex-workers and and supporters. This was not a workplace with a militant history (though a few older workers remembered a nine week strike in the late 70s), and few had any experience of political activity. So, after the spontaneous decision to occupy, the solidarity that appeared – limited though it has been compared to earlier periods of class struggle – came as a welcome surprise.

The left groups appeared for various events and photo- and paper-selling opportunities(3) but – with one or two individual exceptions – provided very little active contribution to the struggle. In fact, their patronising attitude during the occupation resulted in SWP (Trotskyist – the UK’s main left party) individuals being asked to leave.

After 9 days the occupation was ended on April 9th.

As we said at the time;

“The occupation was an inspiration for many – the spirit of the workers who refused to submit to being blatantly robbed by their bosses seemed to be what many had been waiting for, for far too long – the early possible signs of a resurgence of class struggle. Now that the occupation is ended without any clear victory in sight, some reflection is needed on the strengths and weaknesses of what has happened. It is always easy to be wise after the event, and necessary to be careful not to forget who initiated this struggle and took the risks. Any criticisms are as much of ourselves as supporters as of the occupiers. Still, we’ll never get very far in developing our struggles if we don’t reflect on where we went wrong and how we all might do things better next time.

The union pursuaded the workers to end the occupation today (Thursday Apr 9th) without any details of the rumoured deal being made known to them. They are told all will be revealed on Tuesday. The obvious question is – why then not wait until Tuesday to decide whether to leave the factory? There will be different answers from different interested parties. Some workers may say they are tired from constant occupation and/or that they have been pursuaded/pressured by the union that the bosses have insisted the occupation must end to guarantee the unspecified possible deal. The union may also claim that there could be legal penalties for failing to comply with the undertaking given in court on Monday to leave the factory by noon today. But none of this appears very convincing or in the workers’ interest; they have surrendered their greatest bargaining asset, the possession of the plant, its machinery and stock. So the negotiations restart on Tuesday from a weakened position for the workers. The picketing that is planned to replace the occupation will be less effective in preventing repossession of Visteon property. And legal threats can probably be applied to enforce restrictions on picketing activity too.

The rough conditions in the factory shouldn’t be underestimated, but another few days might have made all the difference to the outcome that may determine the workers’ long-term financial future. (The Ford pension fund is already 100s of millions in the red.) It had already been suggested that a rota system could’ve been set up, with help from supporters, to ease the strain of manning the occupation.

The union may claim that the undertaking they gave in court on Monday – that the occupation would end by noon today – left them open to legal penalties; but even the judge queried if they could guarantee the obedience of the occupiers. One would think that all the union would’ve needed to do to protect themselves is to say that they had made an effort to pursuade the occupiers to leave. The occupiers themselves could have stayed with no legal sanctions hanging over them other than a standard possession order common in squatting cases. The agreed undertaking with Visteon was that they would not seek possession while negotiations continue. Visteon – and the union – made that conveniently obsolete by agreeing to postpone revealing any details of the deal until Tuesday (if there even is any deal). One can speculate that if a really satisfactory deal was on offer the union would already be shouting it from the rooftops.

The union and the left have already begun to claim this struggle as a victory on the grounds that it forced the company to the negotiating table and that it has inspired other workers. These are partial truths, though any real assessment would have to be made after any deal is sealed. But the fact that the workers have been maneuouvred by the union into a vulnerable position where they could easily be screwed is something not to be glossed over, as the left will want to. This false optimism is only a means of repressing reflection on limits and strengths of what has happened, and a recipe for a repeat of the same errors in the future.

In the final meeting of occupiers no real opposition was expressed to the union’s direction to walk out. This despite some occupiers in earlier conversation expressing a desire to carry on until a decent deal is struck. The same union convenors, who in the beginning had said they and the other occupiers would never leave until a satisfactory deal was agreed, were now obliged to convince the workers they must leave with nothing guaranteed, only rumours of a possible mysterious deal to come. Some in the meeting voiced serious criticisms of the union for keeping them in the dark about developments and not giving enough support to the occupation, but most were by now either relieved or resigned to walking out. The union’s authority to ultimately decide the fate of the workers was not challenged. Early on in the occupation, when it was mentioned that the union might pressure an end to the occupation against workers’ wishes, a couple of workers replied “ah, but we are the union”, as if the workers’ collective voice could control the union structure. But once negotiations were organised by officials – on the other side of the world – and the whole process becomes remote and secret from the workers in the hands of specialists, they become dependent not on what they know, but on what they’re told. And we know from long experience that the union hierarchy has its own vested interests to protect that often don’t coincide with that of the workers.
[…]
But it is often awkward to stick one’s neck out; given the general identification with the union, many supporters felt sensitive about being openly critical of the union and its underlying agenda, for fear of being seen to be divisive. But at the end of the day it’s no good repressing these criticisms – or glossing them over for the sake of some image of unity – when only the explicit recognition of these realities may prevent defeat.”
 (http://libcom.org/news/enfield-ford-visteon-occupation-ends-no-conclusion-10042009)

The original court case brought by Visteon against the occupation on April 6th included the threat of legal sanctions (supposedly imprisonable offences) against two of the union convenors. The exact potential charges the union claimed were being threatened have never been explained; all that has been explicitly referred to are the possibility of costs being awarded against the convenors (which the union could have easily covered). Though UK injunction laws are draconian, this is another example of the union failing to inform the ex-workers of the full facts – which, deliberately or not, made it easier for the union to pressure workers to comply with the union’s wishes.

From a video of the final occupation meeting, showing the union explaining why it must end, (video here; http://libcom.org/news/video-visteon-workers-eviction-enfield-14042009) it’s apparent that scare tactics, deliberately vague information and dubious advice were used. The legal arguments and assessment of risks were extremely dubious, on several grounds. If the occupiers had refused to leave and the case had gone back to court it could have been argued in Unite and the occupiers’ defence that the undertaking was originally to give time for negotiations to occur. But as the company did not announce any offer at the previously agreed deadline of Thurs 12 noon – the occupiers were then freed from keeping their side of the bargain to vacate the premises. But union bureaucrats don’t like things like occupations – they get insecure when they see workers taking initiative for themselves.

Only shortly before the Visteon occupation, other workers had broken the law with no prosecution occurring. Prison officers are legally banned from industrial action but had taken action recently. The prison officers’ union leader justified their action with, for a screw, quite ironic words; “The right to strike is the only defence of our freedom. If this means breaking the law, we are prepared for this”.

The same week as the occupation the NUT and NAHT teachers’ unions were preparing to boycott the SATS test for children aged 11 from next year. They planned to get votes at their Conferences. This was clearly illegal, as government Ministers proclaimed on television . This would arguably be a “conspiracy” to breach the law – a criminal offence punishable by prison. The recent Lindsey oil refinery wildcat strikes also escaped any legal sanction. Similarly, the Belfast Ford-Visteon ocupation suffered no legal penalties.

The evidence suggests that the government wanted the Ford Visteon dispute dealt with sensitively. As one of the first major disputes of the credit crisis, with redundancy and pensions the issues, its handling – and possibly workers’ responses – would be a template for future company bankruptcies. A heavy-handed violent eviction of workers who had been blatantly robbed by their employers after a lifetime of employment would be likely to inflame the situation by informing the millions of soon-to-be-unemployed of what they might also expect. As other companies fail, the government is worried that things might escalate.

Meanwhile, Belfast remained in occupation and the company – realising the greater local support there and history of militancy – had not yet applied to the courts for possession proceedings. When the court possession papers did arrive at Belfast, the occupiers ceremoniously burned them and remained in occupation. A supporter described the situation there:
“Since 2000 the negotiation has been an ongoing process. The ‘520’ agreement said that workers at one of Ford’s ‘Visteon’ plants had the right to work in another Ford plant as Ford employees. At one point when a ‘Visteon’ plant in England was shedding jobs many of the employees flowed to a nearby Ford plant and replaced outsourced workers with temporary contracts. The workers at Visteon plants in England have nearby Ford plants in which they are potentially eligible for work, for example the Ford plant in Bridgend was 11 miles from the Swansea Visteon plant [both plants in Wales]. However in Belfast, there is no such nearby plant. The 520 agreement only applies if the workers go to a Ford plant, so obviously the Belfast workers in Finaghy feel this plant closure is ripping the heart out of their community (the majority of whom are from greater Belfast area and a significant minority of which are directly from the immediate Finaghy/West Belfast area.

This is perhaps why the focus of the campaign is not on redundancy pay (as has been reported in the news) but rather the focus is on keeping the factory open. “I don’t want a redundancy package,” one worker told me. It was Belfast workers refusal to leave that inspired similar direct action resistance at the two other closing Visteon plants in Basildon and Enfield (England). On Wednesday a supporters’ march with a couple hundred people started at a local shopping centre and walked out to the occupied plant. The Northern Ireland Parades Commission normally requires 28 days notice before any kind of march can happen (because sectarian marches have resulted in violence). However the police were down to the plant the day before to fast track the permission process so that the March could go forward legally. Support for the Belfast workers occupation has so far been very strong from all quarters.”

With the end of the Enfield occupation, to retain any leverage in negotiations it became essential to prevent stock and machinery being removed from the plant. (Of the three plants, Enfield held the most valuable company property – including expensive plastic moulding machinery.) 24hr picketing of the plant’s five gates began. Still the union failed to provide any resources; braziers, portaloos, tents and a caravan being provided by ex-workers and supporters. The ex-workers were by now very disillusioned by the union – but at the same time the union’s lack of support meant they began to learn some skills of collective self-organisation.

Unite – a force for isolation 

In the car industry the economic crisis means most workers are now on reduced hours. As a relatively well paid manual job, most car workers have mortgages and other debt commitments, so the increased economic insecurity in the present crisis meant workers were unwilling to risk their income for on-the-job solidarity action with the ex-Ford-Visteon workers. But most of the finances were coming from local union branches (not just car workers) sending donations via the support group; though the union finally, after 3 weeks, coughed up some cash. Unite also failed to mention the dispute on their website or send out information to local union branches – showing their real attitude to the dispute and concern to keep it isolated. As the dispute went on, ex-workers’ disillusionment with the union increased to a permanent cynicism – unsurprisingly, given their lack of support and Unite’s failure to keep ex-workers informed. Many felt their convenors were too close to, or influenced by, the union bosses and that this affected their ability to act in the best interests of all. But, without having space here to say much, we must note that any criticism of the union must recognise that it is not simply – as some supporters and workers have implied – that the union is ‘not doing its job properly’, but that it is doing its job all too well as a capitalist institution. As always, it has prioritised its own organisational interests and tried to limit workers’ gains to what can be accommodated to those interests and to the wider interests of the economy.

Union bureaucrats helping Nu Labour manage capitalism in crisis 

The close political and financial relationship between UK unions and the Labour Party continues (often rewarded by a seat and title in the House of Lords for retired union bosses). Disputes like this make clear that unions are one of the mechanisms by which the financial crisis will be managed for capital. The 55% stake taken by America’s UAW union in Chrysler is another example – the deal includes a no-strike agreement until 2015!

The first round

Meanwhile, convenors from the three plants were flown out to the US, alongside Unite bosses, to negotiate with Visteon bosses. Ford bosses refused to participate – they still denied any obligation to their former workers. Therefore a satisfactory deal was always unlikely to be won from these negotiations. According to one report, the convenors were not present in the meetings, but were left in the bar while the bosses on both sides decided the fate of ‘their’ workers.

After this first round of negotiations an offer was made by the administrators – but this was simply 90 day’s wages, which was the minimum statutory obligation anyway! In response to this insult the Enfield pickets now reinforced the barricades around the factory exits. The 24hr picketing was, unsurprisingly, proving far more difficult to sustain than an occupation. But rotas were organised and, between ex-workers and supporters, a presence was kept on the 5 gates. Ford dealerships around the country were also being regularly picketted and leafletted. One account;
“On a Saturday afternoon, 3 of us went to leaflet a Ford dealership in Waltham Cross. There wasn’t a lot of pedestrian traffic – but the dealership was on a corner of a crossroads with traffic lights. So we started leafletting cars as they stopped, waiting for the lights to change – getting out on the road among the cars, giving leaflets thru windows. Then Ian (ex-worker), his partner and daughter joined us – Ian in white boiler suit with “toot for the workers” painted on his back, and they brought placards, whistles and plenty of energy and noise. So we got a good number of cars honking support and taking leaflets, plus some pedestrians. And talking to one not very sympathetic worker who came out of the dealership – who questioned the point of us being there and complained “we’re not Ford, we’re just a dealership who sell their cars”! – she confirmed that, though management don’t work weekends, they would have been informed by e-mail of our presence.”

A New Deal

While the 70-80 active Enfield ex-workers had been maintaining occupation and then picketing the other nearly 200 ex-workers had been passively waiting at home (or seeking other work). When a new improved deal was then announced, many of these passive 200 suddenly reappeared to find out what was on offer, causing understandable resentment. The improved offer was in response to a threat from the sacked Visteon workers to begin picketting the profitable Ford low emission engine plant at Bridgend – the one Ford UK plant still running at full capacity and an essential part of their supply chain. This apparently followed a meeting of Ford Unite convenors in London, where it had been arranged to send delegations of ten ex-workers each from the three plants.

Ford found this more threatening than the previous solitary visits to Ford plants to ask Ford workers to black Visteon products – they didn’t like the idea of ex-Visteon people actually trying to picket out Ford workers. This brought Ford to the negotiating table; they brought the Chairman and CEO of Ford Europe to negotiate with the Joint General Secretary of Unite – Unite then told the ex-workers to call off the Bridgend picket.

There may have also been pressure from the UK government on Ford to offer an improved deal; if Ford-Visteon were to set a precedent for companies of avoiding all financial obligations in such workplace closures this would massively increase the amount the state would have to pay out in benefits in future to sacked workers. (Whereas if workers receive redundancy payouts they cannot claim benefits until that money has been spent – the state specifies how long one can ‘reasonably’ be expected to live on specific sums. So one cannot just blow the redundancy on a flash car and holidays in the sun, then stroll into the dole office expecting money. Unfortunately…) As other global motor giants crash, Ford may also have taken into account their position as, at present, the comparatively healthy survivor of the car industry. If they are to maintain this dominant position, they may feel the need to maintain a minimum reputation as an employer who pays up in the eyes of present and future employees.

While the new offer was being considered, some supporters organised a Mayday picket of KPMG, the accountancy firm administrating the receivership procedure of Visteon. They would decide how much all the creditors, including the ex-workers, would get from remaining assets. The weather was kind, and a sunny day found us outside their offices with around 60 people; a small mobile sound system also turned up with music and some Ford-Visteon ex-workers used its microphone to express their disgust at their treatment. A leaflet was distributed;
KPMG: Those who helped make the crisis now profit from it 
KMPG are one of the biggest accountancy companies in the world, offering ‘creative auditing’, profit laundering and tax avoidance advice to big business (http://visar.csustan.edu/aaba/Davosspeech.pdf) They are currently facing a $1billion lawsuit for malpractices in the US subprime market that contributed to the present economic crisis. Now they are acting as ‘administrators’ for Ford-Visteon motor company – helping to rob sacked employees of their redundancy pay and pensions. This is why we are picketing KPMG today.” […]
Putting people into misery: KPMG are protecting the motor giants’ profits by witholding what is owed to the workers, threatening their homes and futures -Some workers now face repossession orders and many others could lose their homes too, if Ford, Visteon and KPMG get away with their dirty tricks.” […]
KPMG’s job is to protect the profits of capitalists at the expense of those who create the wealth- all through the dispute, they have rejected the workers’ claims and demands, using the same excuses as the Ford-Visteon bosses that “The company is insolvent. Ford and Visteon UK are completely separate companies”. KPMG have used threats of injunctions and sought possession orders in court against the workers’ factory occupations.
Support the workers! But the sacked Ford-Visteon workers are bravely standing up to Ford, Visteon and KPMG- not just for themselves, but for all of us affected by the recession. The attempted theft of their redundancy pay and pensions is how many bosses are sacking and robbing workers-with suitable advice from the likes of KPMG, of course. So the Ford-Visteon workers fight is the fight of all vulnerable workers – support them!”

The vote on the offer

Prior to voting, Enfield workers had the details of the deal read out to them by convenors, and some saw a handwritten version of its points. In their haste to get the vote passed and get this regrettable outbreak of industrial unrest concluded so they could go back the smooth and tidy bureaucratic functions of trade unionism, it was too much to expect the union to type and print out a copy for each worker to study and so vote on their long-term financial futures in the most informed way. The vote on the deal was deliberately arranged by the union so that Enfield and Basildon voted on it on the Friday, May 1st; then Belfast, still in occupation and with a more militant reputation, would vote on the Sunday. So, inevitably, the acceptance of the deal at Enfield and Basildon was designed to encourage acceptance at the Belfast vote. All plants did vote acceptance; the Enfield vote was 178 to 5 and Basildon was 159 to 0. Belfast voted 147 to 34.

Soon after the euphoria of the securing of an improved deal and the acceptance vote, workers began to wonder what exactly they had voted for. The normal shift patterns workers had been on for years had changed in the last months leading up to the plant closure – when workers were working shorter weeks – and these shift patterns were used as part of the calculation of payments. So no one was clear how it would all add up for them. Since then, workers seemed to have gained a clearer idea and, rightly see it as a partial victory – and worth the struggle. They have won as much as 10 times the original offer. But one small group of ex-workers – ‘CCRs’ employed after Visteon took over(4) – had inferior non-Ford contracts and so were given smaller payments. Some workers – both CCRs and ex-Ford – saw this as unnecessarily divisive and blamed both Ford-Visteon and union bosses for this; but, still, there was some resentment between workers about the disparity and at the failure by the rest of the workers to stick it out for a uniform deal (though at Belfast it was rumoured that other workers would each donate £300 to compensate for the shortfall in CCR payments). It’s unfortunate that some are leaving the dispute with such feelings. Part of the reason for this is probably;
1) through the dispute workers didn’t hold enough regular general meetings so they could insist on being fully informed of what was developing and could discuss it between themselves as a whole group. So, eg, at Enfield cliques around certain gates formed (people tending to always be picketting on the same gates), without enough contact/debate between all workers.
2) Prior to the vote, the union didn’t give people a printed document of settlement terms and time enough to consider the deal, discuss and seek advice on it and what it meant for each individual and for different groups of ex-workers. This rushing through of acceptance was clearly deliberate by the union, as was the arrangement whereby Belfast voted after Enfield & Basildon.

Remaining outstanding issues are; the ex-workers’ pensions – this will be decided by a (possibly 2 year-long) court case, unfortunately conducted on workers’ behalf by the union’s so-far incompetent (but no-doubt expensive) lawyers. If little comes of this, ex-workers have been led to expect to receive 60-90% compensation of their pension from a government scheme. But, whereas the pension would be paid from age 58, government compensation begins only at 65. (A more recent calculation has suggested that workers may only get 45% of their original pension under this scheme. As usual, the union has been slow in informing itself and its members of the accurate facts of the pensions issue.)

Rob Williams, a militant union convenor at another spun-off plant, Linamar (formerly Visteon) in Swansea, was sacked for his support of the sacked Ford/Visteon workers. (He was visiting other workplaces encouraging support for the dispute, though this was presumably done only through union channels at convenor level rather than directly appealing to the workforce.) Williams then barricaded himself in his office and workers walked out in his support; he was eventually reinstated under suspension. Shortly after he was permanently sacked. Management removed the door to his office to prevent another barricading and foremen threatened workers with the sack if they walked out again (see; http://libcom.org/news/swansea-union-convenor-sacked-supporting-fordvisteon-workers-28042009). A support campaign has been organised demanding his reinstatement and Linamar workers in Swansea have voted 139-19 (with a turn out of 88%) for an indefinite strike to force Williams’ reinstatement. Probably also prompted by wider issues, such as recent management intimidation, looming redundancies etc, the strike is due to start shortly (In fact on was Rob Williams reinstated on 10th june due to the threat of strike action).

The business of unions as mediators and defenders of capitalist exploitation 

This dispute shows, once again, the contradictions and limits of a rank’n’file level of unionism; shop steward and convenor positions – often taken by the most militant workers – must mediate between shop floor interests and the union bureaucracy’s organisational interests. Workers often see the union as an organisational framework giving them a collective identity and protective strength; and on a day to day level it often does so, within existing conditions and agreements. What workers often don’t acknowledge (or fail to act upon) is that this strength is their own power mediated by the union structure as its representation – and therefore limited by it; a power that has the potential to conflict with and go beyond both the control of their employers and their union leaders. This conflict was made explicit in this dispute when many workers saw that the union was more interested in doing things through its own bureaucratic channels over and above their heads while giving no practical help to the struggle on the ground. This was undoubtably a mixture of bureaucrats’ instinctive dislike for spontaneous outbursts of workers’ unrest – which threaten the smooth functioning and efficient reputation of unions – and an attitude whereby bureaucrats assume they’re the experts who always know best how to handle these situations. But it was also indicative of a class relation; unions are generally run today primarily as financial service brokers – “negotiating deals on insurance, mortgages and pensions, medical cover, holidays and car breakdown services” etc – and investment funds with a sideline in industrial arbitration. Unite boss Derek Simpson, close friend of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, earns more than the PM. A free £800,000 house for life, nearly £200,000 of pay and benefits, 17% pay rises etc, he stays in £400 a night hotel rooms when on union business. Undoubtedly Gordie and Del have discussed how best to manage worker unrest during the present crisis in the best interests of the capitalist system that rewards them so well for their management.

Unions are partly an organisational manifestation of the immediate limits of workers’ own aspirations, values and confidence (and, under normal circumstances, usually the limits of the actual realistic possibilities in a given situation – workers do want a deal negotiated). Often stewards are the most militant and pro-strike of the workforce. By their participation workers animate unions.

The potential struggle against union domination is one within and between workers to overcome the contradiction of being labour power bought and sold and moving beyond that; but workers have to live and eat this side of the revolution! They don’t just accept unions because they’re naive/lack consciousness – alongside their cynicism, they know unions deliver something and to be without a union would usually be even worse under present conditions. (Those employers who want union-free workplaces want to be free of certain union-mediated obligations.)

Any real break by workers with unions will come from confronting the limits of these contradictions in practice – and, insofar as it occurs within a unionised workforce, will probably occur as something emerging out of the union and the role of union militants/stewards (as a radicalisation of stewards and/or a confrontation with their role). That doesn’t mean one has to advocate a struggle within unions (though rank’n’filism etc inevitably occurs) – it means recognising that workers’ power is expressed within union structures, but is not inevitably forever bounded by the limits of union forms. It spills over, makes partial breaks, is usually reincorporated or lapses into a new form of mediation. And we seek to encourage that break further in real struggles – as a development of taking control of our own struggles rather than passively accepting the representation of union or other mediation specialists. Most of the time that occurs at most on a small scale so we are limited by the existing mediation process.

The ability to pursue interests and demands within the union form – and for the form to at the same time function as a limit on radical developments – is a key to understanding its continued strength.

A real workplace radicalisation would see workers not only in conflict with management and union bosses – but also some conflict between stewards and workers, ie, between those stewards and other workers for and against confronting/organising against the union – and also would mean workers confronting their own fears and lack of confidence in making these breaks, confronting their own habits of ‘leaving it to the experts’ – be they union officials or perhaps even the future emerging specialist council delegates of workers councils set up in radical opposition to unions. (In the Russian Revolution, for example, there was a ‘bureaucratisation from below’ as well as from the ruling party above; factory, district & soviet committee delegates spent more and more time away from the workplace on delegate business and so gradually became permanent representatives/bureaucrats.)

So the working class doesn’t only have to defeat external enemies, it has to confront and overcome what internally perpetuates its existence as the working class; the above-mentioned fears and lack of confidence, old habits and structures and their accompanying values, thought patterns, hierarchies etc. Some of these questions were hinted at during the Visteon dispute – but things never developed far enough to really confront these contradictions. This is not just a remote ‘question of revolutionary strategy’ – it is a concrete question of how most effectively to conduct struggles now. Under present conditions this inevitably often means confronting union control of struggles – and it is this that has potentially radical implications.

After 48 days – on Monday 18th May the Ford-Visteon workers ended the dispute at all 3 plants. Partial though the victory is, and with all the limits and weakness it contained, the struggle is highly significant. The ex-workers have achieved more than might have been expected (particularly after Enfield ended their occupation, and despite the absence of solidarity action by other car workers). Despite the pensions uncertainty, under present conditions and compared to most UK labour disputes of the last 25 years it is a pretty good result; and it sends a much more encouraging signal to workers who will face similar situations.

– A supporter

June 2009

(Thanks to Frank, Conor, Georgia & others who provided info.)

For various documents and comments on the dispute, see;

http://libcom.org/search/node/visteon

http://libcom.org/tags/visteon-occupation

Footnotes

1) 17 or so Enfield workers were not sacked but kept on by Visteon. The plan was that they would be used later to prepare stock and machinery for removal from the factory. But in the meantime some of these workers were involved in the occupation and picketing – and when the company called them in to work the ex-workers and supporters group responded by circulating a general call-out which brought a larger presence on the picket lines. All the workers (but one, a manager?) refused to cross the picket line, rendering their skills useless to Ford-Visteon.

2) Convenors are workers elected/appointed from the stewards in large factory complexes with different shops and processes.The nearest equivalent in other workplaces would be branch secretary (the branch may or may not cover a single workplace). So the difference relates to whether a union is organised by workplace or branch. Basically, the branch secretary or convenor have a direct link to the union regional structure and gain legitimacy and influence from that relationship, a legitimacy not so easily gained by a steward. Convenors and branch secretaries are usually entitled to varying levels of paid time off for union duties. Historically, shop stewards’ committees gained their legitimacy from the rank’n’file power they wielded, which forced the district and regional union officials to take notice of the shopfloor. The decision-making process in Enfield illustrates how much that relatively independent power has been eroded and so the terms do not have quite the same resonance these days. In times past convenors apparently worked the day shift and were compensated for loss of shift allowance by levies raised on the shop floor.

3) For example, when the Enfield occupation ended, there had been very little recent presence of the SWP around the plant. But they put a general call out to members to attend: As the occupiers came out, the SWP – never ones to miss an opportunist photo-opportunity – swamped the crowd with their placards and chanted ‘the workers united will never be defeated’. Under the circumstances, this had a hollow and ironic ring. It began to feel, as nearly every strike has in the past 20+ years – like one more predictable stitch up by union bureaucrats – more interested in helping Nu Labour manage capitalism in crisis than feeling the need to win even modest gains for workers.”  (an excerpt from this account)

4) CCR stands for Competitive Cost Rate, apparently introduced for newer employees at Visteon to relate their pay to the going current rate in the industry, not the pay of Visteon staff on existing or Ford mirrored terms and conditions. The argument of the ex-Visteon CCRs appeared to be that the union was negligent in allowing these differentials to develop for what was presumably the same job.

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Postscript: The Visteon workers from four plants faced a long fight to recover large chunks of their pensions which were lost to them when the company went into administration. Five years later a settlement was reached.

This re-post is dedicated the only occupier of the Visteon plant who was not a Visteon worker, Alan Woodward, a veteran union activist and socialist and (among so much else) founding member of past tense’s friends the Radical History Network of Northeast London. Alan was one of the first on the spot after the occupation started and remained inside for the duration. He died in October 2012, and we miss him. His account of the Enfield occupation is also well worth a read.

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

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Today in London’s radical history: Italian restaurant workers union hold first meeting of London Italian restaurant workers union launched, 1901.

Ironically as it may seem in these times, in the nineteenth century, Britain was a popular and open destination for political exiles and others forced from their countries for their beliefs, or because of their race or creed…

This was due to a relatively liberal asylum policy, unique then among European countries. A tradition of free access to the country had long roots, linked as it was with the idea of free trade and based on the knowledge of the advantage of learning skills from foreigners. Work that one out Theresa.

Of course this isn’t to say that there had never been discrimination, distrust of and attacks on ‘foreigners’ – there had been and would be again.

But 19th century British government’s largely did not pass any legislation in order to regulate immigration, except under very particular circumstances, so that from 1826 to 1905, apart from a gap due to the revolutions of 1848-50, all migrants, either refugees or not, enjoyed complete free access to the United Kingdom.

British legislation on extradition also made England safer than other countries for political refugees. Indeed, British law did not authorise extradition for discussing political ideas or holding unorthodox opinions. (British policy toward immigration would change completely with the introduction of an Aliens Act in 1905.)

Substantial communities of migrants grew up in London, notable among them political refugees, fleeing from persecution, arrest, imprisonment and sometimes torture and execution in their home countries. Exiles from European countries formed the vast majority – Germans, Italians, French, Russians, Poles often forming the largest groups, and all shades of political opinion among them. Nationalists working against the large empires which then ruled much of Europe (or to unite countries then divided), republicans, liberals and later socialists, communists and anarchists… These colonies often settled in London, for many the first port of call, and having access to work, intellectual life, and usually having groups/communities of their compatriots already established…

The first significant groups of Italian refugees moved to London during the 1820s, as government repression followed the failure of the revolutions in Naples and Piedmont in 1820-21. At this time, Italian refugees together with the Poles were the largest community of exiles in London.

Successive governments, from before Italian unification (when Italy was split into a number of rival states), and after it, put into practice repression in order to repress the activities of various political movements. As Italy became unified, focus shifted from the nationalists and republicans who had plotted unification for years, to the more radical social and political groupings…

By the 1830s, this community of Italian refugees became one of the most active and influential in Europe. Some of these Italians eventually integrated themselves into English life, and obtained important positions within society.

In January 1837, leading Italian nationalist republican, Giuseppe Mazzini, a central figure in 19th century Europe, arrived in London. For thirty years he played a crucial role in Italian refugee and migrant community during the first half of the nineteenth century. These activities were only briefly interrupted when Mazzini left for Italy in order to take his part in the revolutions of 1848, but he was forced to return to his refuge in London after the fall of the Roman Republic, of which he was president, in 1849. The number of political refugees who escaped to the United Kingdom from the European reaction reached probably its height in the wake of the defeat of the 1848 revolts.

From the 1870s, socialists and anarchists became the most marked out groupings for repression in Italy, the latter especially. This strategy of repression was based on several special measures taken by the different governments in power, both of the Right and of the Left, and carried out by the police and security forces. The most effective measures were preventive detention, which compelled some anarchists to spend many months in jail before trial, laws against the press, and finally, the most threatening among them, the domicilio coatto (forced domicile) and the ammonizione (admonishment). 

During these recurrent periods of severe repression, for the Italian anarchists “the only way to escape […] was to go underground or flee into exile”.

The countries where most anarchists found refuge were France, Switzerland and Belgium, but some of them emigrated to the United States while others established small communities in the Balkans, in the Levant and in South America.

Originally, the laws concerning forced domicile and admonishment were promulgated against common criminals, in particular to fight brigantaggio (banditry), but, after the Left gained power in 1876, they were directed especially against the anarchists. Indeed, the government did not grant the status of political activist to the Internationalists; instead, it regarded them as an ‘association of malefactors’.

Substantial numbers of Italian political exiles grew up in Holborn, Soho and Clerkenwell, the areas where the Italian community traditionally settled. The Italian colony in those years was generally very poor, although their poverty was alleviated by mutual aid due to the existence of a long standing and supportive community. The first Italian immigrants who moved to London for economic reasons, particularly during the period 1840 -1870, were mostly unskilled workers and their activities were mainly itinerant: most of them were organ-grinders, street peddlers, figure makers or ice-cream sellers. At the end of the century, catering became the main sector in which Italian people were employed, particularly in the Soho area. Tito Zanardelli, one of the first Italian anarchists who arrived in London, addressed his propaganda to these categories of workers in 1878.

A significant section of the anarchist community was itself active in the catering trades (a record of anarchists by trade in the late Victorian period lists 4 working as dishwashers, 14 waiters, and 5 cooks). Some of them opened their own restaurants.

The anarchists tried numerous times to organise the workers of the community. During the 1890s a large number of Italians were employed in the catering trade, especially as cooks and waiters who worked in the restaurants in Soho. At the turn of the century, with the expansion of catering services in London, the number of Italian cooks and waiters increased steadily. They lived mainly around Soho and Holborn. The employees in restaurants and hotels were unorganised; they often had to take work under any conditions and were subject to a harsh sweating system. “The German, Swiss, of Italian waiter usually did not receive any wages, but, on the contrary, he had to pay his employer a percentage of 6d. or more in the pound of his gross takings in tips.”

The catering sector became the one of the centres for organised Italian exile politics. However, unions often didn’t last long, and the campaigns were said alter to have “had few tangible results”. The hotel trades and catering were ‘so much fragmented in small units and so often temporary and seasonal’ represented a major obstacle. As with other ‘casual’ or seasonal work, the nature of the job made it hard to maintain consistent organisation (for instance, the tailoring and building trades also found it hard to keep networks alive). On top of this, much of the Italian anarchist migrant community was constantly caught between their lives in London and their orientation towards their homeland, and activists were liable to return to Italy when they could…

In July 1893, leading Italian anarchist exiles Malatesta, Gori, Merlino, and Agresti, referred to the establishment of a new workers’ association in opposition to the Circolo Mazzini-Garibaldi in a letter to the director of the newspaper Londra-Roma, Pietro Rava, and raised the issue of poor working conditions in the restaurants. In 1901, the Italian anarchists announced in their newspaper, L’Internazionale, the first meeting of the Lega di Resistenza fra i lavoratori in cucina in Londra. The meeting was to be held at the headquarters of the Circolo Filodrammatico, at 38-40 Hanway Street. This meeting took place on 20 January, according to the L’Internazionale; several orators spoke in front of a large audience, and a British worker urged the waiters to join the Amalgamated Waiters Society. The meeting ended with the endorsement of a resolution urging the waiters to fight for ‘l’abolizione delle mance e un adeguato salario’. This was “not intended to be another friendly society but focused on economic struggles: reducing working hours, for increasing wages, especially focusing on Italian bosses who “took advantage of the miserable conditions and adaptability of their exploits them.”

L’Internazionale dedicated many articles to the anarchists’ attempt to organise the waiters and dishwashers employed in the restaurants of the capital. The newspaper also published the correspondence of a waiter, Vincenzo Mayolio, who described the harshness of working conditions in restaurants.

I am not sure what happened to this union, but a few years later in 1905, an Italian anarchist, named Bergia, launched a campaign against employment agencies. These agencies were the main way Italian workers in the West End restaurant trade got work (not much has changed in many so-called casual trades, in 100 years, it seems). Bergia opened a rival ‘free employment agency’ based in his own restaurant in Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia, and called a meeting on December 2nd 1905 for Italian cooks to discuss the formation and structure of a ‘Lega di resistenzia’. The restaurant’s address was also used for the correspondence of the secretary of the Caterers’ Employees Union. Indeed, in order to reach the catering workers, Bergia founded, with the English activist, M. Clark, the newspaper, the Revue. International Organ for the interests of all Employees in Hotels, Restaurants, Boarding-Houses, etc. The articles in the newspaper were written in English, German, and French. The campaign among the Italian waiters gave rise to some results. Inspector Frosali reported that, at a meeting organised at the German Club where the French anarchist, Gustave Lance, spoke about the trade union movement. Another Italian anarchist involved in the organisation of waiters was Giacinto Ferrarone, who, like Bergia, came from the north Italian town of Biella (and signed his articles in anarchist newspapers as Giacomino Giacomini). Ferrarone exercised some influence among Italians employed in hotels and restaurants, most of whom were from Piedmont too. For this reason, in April 1905, he was chosen as a speaker at meetings to campaign for the abolition of the employment agencies. Ferrarone later joined the socialists but continued his organisational work. He promoted the creation of sindacati di resistenza (trade unions) that, in his view, represented the workers’ real interests.

He was also the tenant of the headquarters of the Lega di Resistenza dei lavoratori della mensa, constituted as the Sezione Italian adella Caterer’s Employees Union, at 55 Frith Street, Soho. But his career as a labour organiser for the anarchists or socialists ended abruptly when he left London at the beginning of August 1907, after stealing the funds of the club, Nuovo Sempione, of which he was the secretary.

However agitation among the catering workers continued and in 1909, the mobilisation of workers in restaurants and hotels, led especially by the socialists, resulted in demonstrations against the ‘Truck system’, the system used by employers for sharing tips among their employees. Abolition of all Registry offices and Employment Agencies and a weekly day of rest were the main aims of the protest. In February 1909, the French group and the editors of the newspaper the Revue met at the International Club to maintain the campaign and plan a demonstration in April. The demonstration took place in Trafalgar Square on 18 April.

The anarchists’ involvement in the catering workers’ struggles drew worker into their orbit politically. In the wake of the repression of a popular uprising in Barcelona in 1909, the Spanish authorities executed libertarian educationalist Francisco Ferrer. This led to widespread protests across Europe. In the months following the rising in Barcelona and after Ferrer’s arrest many meetings and rallies were organised in London. They were all well attended. Many Italian waiters and scullery-boys were present.

This post owes pretty much everything to Pietro Di Paola ‘s excellent thesis

later published as The Knights Errant of Anarchy

Another (first-hand) account of organising West End restaurant workers in a slightly later period can be found here.

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

Today in London’s radical history: Times compositors jailed for ‘conspiring’, 1810.

On December 11th 1810 nineteen journeymen compositors (typesetters) who worked on the Times newspaper were sentenced to imprisonment for conspiracy, in fact organizing themselves to stick together in their own interests – asking for a rise in wages. The 1799 and 1800 Combination Acts made all trade unions illegal, but in fact prosecution of workers for getting together to campaign for higher wages, better conditions was a long tradition, going back as far as the medieval guilds.

The prosecuting counsel said of the organisation involved:

“It was called a friendly society, but by means of some wicked men among them this society degenerated into a most abominable meeting for the purpose of a conspiracy; those of the trade who did not join their society were summoned, and even the apprentices, and were told, unless they conformed to the practices of these journeymen, when they came out of their times [finished their apprenticeships] they should not be employed.”

The judge who tried and sentenced some of them was the Common Sergeant of London, Sir John Sylvester, commonly known as ‘ Bloody Black Jack.’ … “No judge took more pains than did this judge on the unfortunate printers, to make it appear that their offence was one of great enormity, to beat down and alarm the really respectable men who had fallen into his clutches, and on whom he inflicted scandalously severe sentences.” 

Sentences for the men were heavy: Robert Howlett and John Gee were imprisoned in Newgate for two years (and fined one shilling), William Clifton, Stephen Beckett, George Westray were jailed for 18 months (also fined one shilling), Stephen Burley, Henry Byrne, Thomas Wooley jailed for a year; Roderic Paskin, Edward Kidd, William Williams, Corbet Latham, William Coy, James McCartney, John McIntosh, Nathaniel Collins, Malcolm Craig, John Chapman and John Simpson all got 9 months. Malcolm Craig died in prison.

The prosecution of the compositors impressed Francis Place with the necessity of an alteration in the laws on combination, which 15 years later, he was to manage to push through Parliament.

Combinations like the Times compositors’ friendly society were designed to maintain wages and conditions at a rate agreed by the workers; forced underground by acts of parliament, they resorted to persuasion of other workers and apprentices to stick by what was agreed and not work for less or under worse terms, which would undermine the general rate for all. Employers and the courts, parliament, press and church who supported them, all denounced attempts to make agreements among themselves as coercion, both of the bosses by the workers, and of some workers by others, portrayed as agitators. This depiction of how workers attempt to achieve and maintain reasonable conditions and prevent wage reductions is still very much alive in the 21st century, as anti-union laws continue to divide and obstruct us.

In reality there is nothing wrong at all with uniting to coerce the bosses – they coerce us every day into working for them, use force and threat of starvation against us when we object or try to better our lot. To a certain extent also a kind of coercion of opinion against fellow workers who scab, side with the boss against us, is understandable, especially when up against it. When the laws are against you anyway you need to think about how much of the law you obey.

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

Today in London’s industrial history: machine loom weavers fight handloom weavers, Clerkenwell, 1767.

As we have related a number of times on this blog already (here, and here), the silkweavers of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green fought a long battle against mechanisation, to preserve their wage levels and standard of living.

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.

The 1760s saw the silkweavers’ struggles gradually rise to fever pitch. And while earlier battles had been fought between masters and journeymen, or sometimes between masters and journeymen united against cheap fabric imports that threatened to undercut the industry as a whole, sometimes the growth of mechanised techniques in silkweaving brought the machine loom workers into conflict with the older, handloom weavers, who partly blamed the latter for wage cuts and layoffs.

In 1767, amidst wage disputes, 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…”

Tensions would only rise however, between insurgent groups of ‘cutters’ – angry weavers bent on sabotaging looms of masters denying them the wage and work they expected – and those weavers, whether working by hand or machine loom, who worked beneath the agreed wage level. In 1768-9 these disputes would lead to stepped up violence, pitched battles, murder, executions, and the occupation of the area by the army.

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