Striking for the Dockers’ Tanner

The Great Dock Strike 1889

On the 14th August 1889 the London Dockers went on their first all-out strike.  This was brought about by the Manager of the West India Docks cutting the Dockers bonus payments for fast unloading of ships. He had done this to try to undercut his rival Docks and bring more shipping in to the West India Docks.  He had no idea what he had started; he had sowed the wind and would reap the whirlwind.

The Dockers formed a Union, and the men were called out on strike asking for “The Dockers’ Tanner” a rate of sixpence an hour.  They were also campaigning against the “Call on” practice, described by Ben Tillett, one of the Union Organisers of the strike:

“We are driven into a shed, iron-barred from end to end, outside of which a foreman or contractor walks up and down with the air of a dealer in a cattle market, picking and choosing from a crowd of men, who, in their eagerness to obtain employment, trample each other underfoot, and where like beasts they fight for the chances of a day’s work.” 

By August 20th, the entire Port of London was closed to shipping.

Even those workers not striking themselves would have had all their work in the Docks stopped, and the entrances to the Docks were barred by Pickets looking out for Scab Labour trying to strike break.  It made no sense then for other workers to risk a fight around the Docks when there was little chance of any work there anyway.  Some men supplemented their income by working for builders and other businesses in the area.

The Corporation of London and the various Shipping Companies saw the well oiled money making machine of the London Docks grinding to a halt, with their profits falling and tons of perishable goods rotting in ships’ holds. Both Corporation and Ship Owners put pressure on the Dock Owners, to give up their intransigent stand and negotiate with the Dockers’ Unions. 

The strikers were helped greatly by the payment of £30,000 in strike funds from Australian Dockers in support of their colleagues in the London. The strikers also received support from the Roman Catholic Church in the form of Cardinal Manning, as many of the Dockers were of Irish Catholic descent.

After five weeks the Dock Owners caved-in and granted the Dockers’ request for better pay.  It was a major victory for the working men of Poplar and their Unions.  The Dockers had won their “Dockers’ Tanner”.

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