Chapter Five

Towards the Age of Steam

The introduction of steam-powered, iron-hulled ships revolutionized the shipping world during the nineteenth century and had a major impact on the Port of London. Sailing ships had to travel according to seasons, when the winds were blowing in the necessary direction to propel them across the Atlantic, or around Africa on their journey from the Far East. Steam allowed ships to navigate whatever the wind, reducing the voyage from New Zealand from four months to eight weeks. Iron hulls allowed vessels to be bigger and thus carry more cargo and be more cost-effective. They could run to regular timetables and communicate by telegraph, so – importantly for the dock companies – there was no need for goods to be stored for weeks awaiting the arrival of a ship. When the first of London’s docks were completed in the early nineteenth century the average size of a merchant ship was under 500 tons and the largest around 1,200 tons. By the end of the century vessels of over 7,000 tons were arriving.

Nevertheless, the introduction of steam and iron did not happen overnight and it took time for such craft to prove their reliability and cost-effectiveness. It was only in the 1880s that British-registered steam tonnage exceeded that of sail. Coaling stations had to be established and supplied at points around the world before long-distance voyages were possible. The early steamships were pushed by paddle-wheel but a wooden-hulled propeller-driven vessel was demonstrated on the Paddington Canal in 1836. It was tested for the Royal Navy on the Thames and out to sea between Blackwall and Folkestone the following year. That in turn led in 1843 to Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s design for the much larger ocean-going iron-hulled SS Great Britain. In 1850 there were 1,200 steamships operating in Britain but by the beginning of the next decade the number had almost doubled.

One of the leading companies for the construction of iron-hulled steamships was the Thames Ironworks & Shipbuilding Company, based at Leamouth on the Thames close to the East India Docks. In 1853 they built what was then the world’s largest passenger ship. The yard’s lasting legacy is the staff football team, Thames Ironworks FC, which since 1900 has been known as West Ham United. The Brunel-designed The Leviathan (later renamed The Great Eastern) was launched on the sixth attempt at the Scott Russell shipyard at Millwall in January 1858. At 700 feet long, with a gross tonnage of over 18,000 tons, it was to be the longest ship to be built anywhere for a further forty years. Its large size required it to be launched sideways onto the river. A workman was killed on the first attempt. The Thames was too narrow to launch the largest ships and too far from supplies of coal and iron ore so London went into decline as a shipbuilding centre. The Thames Ironworks yard eventually closed in the early twentieth century, by which time the country’s largest shipyards were in the North East, Glasgow and Belfast.

Sailing ships tended to be owned by merchants but substantial capital was required to build and operate steamships. Large shipping lines developed during the nineteenth century. Larger, more stable and safer ships, travelling to more reliable timetables, encouraged the growth of international passenger travel, for business, pleasure or emigration from one part of the world to another. Some lines were founded initially to carry post. The Royal Mail Steam Packet Company was granted a royal charter in 1839. Samuel Cunard established the British & North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company in the same year, later renamed the Cunard Steamship Company. They competed on the North Atlantic routes with the White Star and Inman lines. During the 1830s the Peninsula Steam Navigation Company was sailing between Britain and the Iberian Peninsula. By the 1840s it had won contracts to transport mail and its ships were travelling to more distant destinations in the east, changing its name to the Peninsula and Orient Steam Navigation Company, generally known as P&O. All these companies operated regular mail and passenger services to a fixed timetable, offering levels of passenger comfort ranging from luxurious first class down to steerage. By 1900 a third of Britain’s merchant tonnage was owned by twenty-four companies.

The introduction of ever-larger steamships changed ports around Britain. Where it was possible, docks were enlarged and rivers and entrance-ways deepened. That was simply not possible or financially viable in many of the smaller coastal harbours. Inland ports and international trade became concentrated on a smaller number of major locations, each linked to an industrial centre and with good inland transport links. London, Southampton, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow were the beneficiaries, as well as Harwich and Dover for Continental crossings.

Despite the trend towards iron vessels for long-distance shipping, much of the local traffic along the Thames Estuary and around the coast during the nineteenth century was handled by Thames spritsail barges, with over 2,000 of them under sail at their peak. They were perfectly designed for the job, with flat bottomed hulls that could navigate in shallow water and lie on mud flats or sandbanks, sails that could be lowered to pass under bridges, able to travel up and down the river with the tides, and the ability to cruise empty without the need for ballast. The waterproofing, made of cod oil, red ochre and seawater, turned their flax sails a distinctive red colour. The barges could transport up to 200 tons and mainly carried farm products, bricks and other building materials. Their use gradually declined but some were still in use until the Second World War.

The Victoria Dock

When the London shipowners of the early nineteenth century had created their great new docks downriver between the Tower of London and Bow Creek they could not have foreseen a new generation of much bigger iron-hulled, steam-powered vessels. Nor did they imagine that goods would soon be swiftly carried far and wide by railway. By the mid-century new ships were being built that were too big to navigate as far along the Thames as the upper docks. Even if they could, they would be unable to enter through the relatively small locks into any of the existing docks that were also too shallow to receive them. Furthermore, some of the original docks were hemmed in and could not be easily expanded for railway sidings. If London was to continue to survive and grow it needed new docks or wharves for the steam age of the second half of the nineteenth century. A group of developers therefore obtained an Act of Parliament in 1850 to create a new enclosed dock to accommodate these bigger vessels, with a larger entrance lock and basin than its predecessors.

The new Victoria Dock was to be at Plaistow Marshes, east of Bow Creek, further downstream than the others. Being so remote from London had been a problem when the East and West India docks were created fifty years earlier. The new dock was linked to the rest of the country by rail from the outset, by means of the East Counties & Thames Junction Railway, so that was no longer an issue. Unlike earlier docks, its Act of Parliament included approval for the inclusion of a dry dock, although it was never implemented. The Bill was unopposed and passed in 1850.

The previous docks had been established by merchants and shipowners, whereas the men behind the Victoria Dock, such as Samuel Morton Peto, Edward Ladd Betts and Thomas Brassey, were civil engineers with experience of building railways. Peto was one of the heads of a business that was responsible for the construction of a number of new London buildings including the Houses of Parliament, Nelson’s Column, the Metropolitan Board of Works’ major new London sewers, and the Grand Crimean Central Railway. For certain projects he worked in conjunction with Brassey who was responsible for constructing many of the railways around the world during his lifetime. Betts was also one of the great railway developers of his time.

As the site was marshland, remote from London and with little purpose until that time, the developers were able to purchase the land cheaply. Much of the time it was below water level and flooded but that made excavation easier for the purposes of creating a basin. An early plan, never implemented, was to ship live cattle from Scotland, so the company acquired 200 acres of land beyond the dock for grazing.

The dock had half a mile of quay on each side of its vast single basin, the largest man-made body of water in London at that time. Railway tracks were laid alongside each side so that cargo could be loaded into goods wagons, to be taken into the dock storage sheds or out into the national railway system. The developers decided to line the basin with jetties onto which ships should berth, however. This made it easier to unload onto barges but not directly to and from railway wagons, a disadvantage that became more severe over time. On the north quay were the company offices, with tobacco warehouses, wine vaults and coal sidings. Storage for other types of goods such as salt, jute and guano stood on the opposite quay.

The dock’s huge entrance lock, capable of handling ships of up to 8,000 tons, was 70 per cent greater than the nearby East and West India Docks. With a depth of 28 feet, it could accommodate ships up to 8,000 tons. The lock was at the western end of the dock, opening onto Bugsby’s Reach, close to Bow Creek, and the Victoria was the first dock to use hydraulics for the lock gates and other equipment. There was a plan to acquire additional land so that a connection could be made to the east, downriver at Gallions Reach, but that never materialized.

The Victoria Dock was opened by Prince Albert in 1855. In order to attract the business of high-value cargoes away from the St Katharine Docks, the Victoria Dock Company acquired the Hansa’s former Steelyard site in Upper Thames Street in the City. The venture was not a success and they sold the land to the South Eastern Railway Company for their new Cannon Street railway station, which opened in 1866. By that time the Victoria Dock had become the busiest in the port, handling over 850,000 tons of cargo per year, far greater than any of the older docks.

Further consolidation of the dock companies

Sailing ships travelled according to the weather and their arrival was unpredictable. Warehouses were therefore vital to stockpile goods, having them ready to be loaded when vessels became available. The introduction of ironhulled steamships sailing to fixed timetables, the ability to communicate their departure and arrival times by telegraph, and the possibility to speedily move goods in or out of the port by steam train, reduced the need for dockside storage. With a surplus of warehousing, there was a period of intense competition, when shipowners and merchants could negotiate lower charges from dock and wharf companies. The Warehousing Act of 1832 allowed bonded storage at riverside wharves and William Gladstone’s Budget of 1860 reduced the number of dutiable goods to a mere forty-eight commodities. Thus, not only had the enclosed docks lost their monopoly on shipping, but also the ability to operate a bonded warehouse was thrown open to all, and fewer goods required them.

With so many fiercely competing docks offering low rates to shipping, with a decreasing requirement for long-term warehousing, and with an increasing amount of business going directly or indirectly to numerous factories and independent wharves along the Thames, the 1860s and 1870s were lean years for the major docks. Even at the time of its opening, the entry lock to St Katharine’s was too small for the largest vessels. As ships became ever bigger with the introduction of iron hulls and steam engines, fewer freighters were able to access the dock. Under financial pressure, in 1864 the St Katharine Docks and neighbouring London Docks merged into the London & St Katharine Dock Company and the combined company acquired the Victoria Dock.

In the following year consolidation also took place at Rotherhithe. The Commercial Dock Company had already acquired its smaller neighbour, the East Country Dock, in 1850. In 1855 the Grand Surrey Canal was renamed the Grand Surrey Docks & Canal Company under a new Act of Parliament. They acquired additional land from Sir William Maynard Gomm and in 1860 completed their new Albion (or Main) Dock. At the same time they created four ponds in which timber could be floated to prevent it drying out, as the Commercial Docks had been doing since early in the century. By mid-century two companies owned all the Rotherhithe docks and ponds. Those on the western side of the peninsula belonged to the Grand Surrey Docks & Canal Company while those to the east were the property of the Commercial Dock Company. In 1865 the two companies merged to form the Surrey Commercial Dock Company and embarked on a programme of linking the various basins. In 1876 the Canada Dock was created to the south of Albion Dock, named after the country to which ships traded, with granaries able to hold 35,000 tons of grain. Twenty-three blocks of sheds were added, covering an area of forty-six acres. The company then had a system of nine docks and six timber ponds, with 176 acres of water and 193 acres of wharves.

Down by the docks

With the introduction of iron-hulled steamships the ancient maritime crafts associated with sail began to die out by the middle of the nineteenth century. Small, wooden riverside premises were replaced by larger brick-built wharves and riverside stairs fell into disrepair. As the docks and wharves opened they were joined by numerous manufacturing businesses. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of workers and their families moved to the areas around the docks. Some of the workers had previously been employed at the quays in the City, others arrived to build the docks and stayed to work in them. Step by step, what were market gardens, pastures, tea-gardens and marshes became residential and industrial districts. The ancient riverside Tower Hamlets of Wapping, Limehouse, Shadwell, Ratcliff, Poplar, and Blackwall became engulfed within new industrial suburbs that stretched out to East Ham and eventually beyond. The last of these areas to change from a rural character was the Isle of Dogs, largely in the 1850s, where heavy industry and chemical works replaced pastures, windmills and older riverside crafts. The same was happening on the south side of the river, with maritime and industrial premises all the way from Lambeth down to Greenwich.

Development was piecemeal and, unlike the earlier schemes on the west side of London, there was little overall planning in the creation of the new East End. Vast numbers of monotonous streets of terraced houses were constructed. Landlords often built larger dwellings in the optimistic hope of attracting clerks and tradesmen. In reality the middle classes preferred to live elsewhere, although a community of managers and clerks from the East and West India Docks remained in residence at Poplar until the 1870s. Mostly however, owners were forced to subdivide larger properties into two or three to accommodate workers’ families.

The St Katharine’s and Wapping districts had already existed and the arrival of the docks disrupted the area, causing residents and businesses to be displaced into the surrounding neighbourhoods. Those areas remained districts of small maritime industries, with rope-makers, ships’ carpenters, biscuit-makers, sailors’ outfitters, grog-shops and pawnshops. Along the Ratcliff Highway sailors could sell exotic creatures they had smuggled in. At the end of the century there was a mix of recent development and ancient buildings. The small, isolated area to the south of the London Docks had a distinctly maritime character according to Henry Mayhew writing in the midcentury but there was some redevelopment to residential use for workers in the second half of the century. The less salubrious streets were mainly occupied by thieves, prostitutes, and poor Irish families who had arrived following the potato famine. According to a policeman interviewed by Mayhew in the midcentury it was common for a sailor to arrive in the docks, spend all his money on women and alcohol around Ratcliff Highway (which bordered the north of the London Docks at Wapping) and sail off again penniless. That became less common towards the end of the century as sailors’ missions were set up and as the Board of Trade created savings schemes with which sailors could deposit their money. Some ships’ captains also began to insist that crews returned to their vessels overnight but the 1901 census still recorded that 8,000 sailors were being lodged in Bermondsey, Poplar and Stepney each night.

Charles Dickens described the area in around 1860:

Down by the Docks, they eat the largest oysters and scatter the roughest oyster-shells, known to the descendants of Saint George and the Dragon. Down by the Docks, they consume the slimiest of shell-fish, which seem to have been scraped off the copper bottoms of ships. Down by the Docks, the vegetables at green-grocers’ doors acquire a saline and scaly look, as if they had been crossed with fish and seaweed. Down by the Docks, they ‘board seamen’ at the eating houses, the public houses, the coffee-shops, the tally-shops, all kinds of shops mentionable and unmentionable – board them, as it were, in the piratical sense, making them bleed terribly, and giving no quarter. Down by the Docks, the seamen roam in midstreet and mid-day, their pockets inside out, and their heads no better … Down by the Docks, the pawnbroker lends money on Union-Jack pockethandkerchiefs, on watches with little ships pitching fore and aft on the dial, on telescopes, nautical instruments in cases, and such-like.

At the end of the century, the writer and magistrate Montague Williams looked back on the area immediately north of the London Docks of twenty-five years previously:

Ratcliff Highway, running parallel with the river, extends from Little Tower Hill to Shadwell, and is in close proximity with the London, the Wapping, the Regent’s Canal, and other docks, which at the period I have alluded to were continuously crowded with shipping. In those days the Highway was the scene of riots, debaucheries, robberies, and all conceivable deeds of darkness. Such, indeed, was the character of the place that it would have been madness for any respectable woman, or, for the matter of that, for any well-dressed man, to proceed thither alone. The police themselves seldom ventured there save in twos and threes, and brutal assaults upon them were of frequent occurrence.

The inhabitants of Ratcliff Highway lived upon the sailors. There were a great many lodging-houses there; still more clothiers and outfitters; and any number of public-houses and beershops, nearly every one of which had a dancing saloon at the back of the bar. Jack came ashore with his pockets full of money, but they quickly emptied. He was ready enough to spend his pay, but there were other persons still more ready to despoil him of it. In those days there were no Government officials to board the vessels and arrange for the safe despatch of Jack’s money, and Jack himself to his home. No sooner did a vessel reach her moorings than she was swarming with boarding-house touts, crimps, outfitters, runners, and other rapacious beasts of prey. Poor Jack was soon in the hands of the Philistines.

From the public-houses in Ratcliff Highway there constantly issued the sound of loud laughter, mingled with shouting and fearful imprecations. Far into the night the women and the drunken sailors danced and sang to the accompaniment of screeching fiddles. For the most part the women wore white dresses and white shoes. If the sailors were not entirely fleeced inside the saloons, the process was completed by bullies and fighting men when they staggered out into the street. The poor fellows were frequently drugged, and sometimes half murdered.

Sailors of every nationality were to be met in this thoroughfare, including a great many Portuguese, Spaniards, Italians, Greeks, Norwegians, and Scandinavians. The Highway was indeed a veritable modern Babel. Among the disreputable characters to be met there were men dressed as sailors who sold parrots and parakeets, many of which could blaspheme almost as naturally as their owners …

After the great strikes the maritime prosperity of London began to wane, and one result was that the character of Ratcliff Highway somewhat improved. Other circumstances have assisted to purify that region. New docks drew the shipping lower down the Thames; the great liners are manned by a better class of men than were the sailing vessels of thirty years ago; and I am not sure that the changes brought about in the shipping world by the construction of the Suez Canal had not something to do with the transformation alluded to.

Much good has no doubt been effected by the appointment of certain Board of Trade officials. A sailor is now shipped in proper form. Articles are no longer signed in some disreputable little public-house.

The inhabitants of the East End were a melting pot of different people. Many had come seeking employment from Ireland, some from Scotland and the North of England. Some had arrived by ship from further afield, often fleeing poverty or war. Not too far away from the docks, around Spitalfields, a large community of Huguenots had settled, Protestants who had escaped persecution at the hands of Catholics in France. Later, large numbers of Germans and Jews settled around Leman Street and Whitechapel.

In the public perception, Limehouse was where you would find Chinese opium dens, due to some popular novels. In that there was some small truth but the reality was that there were far more public houses – over 100 on the East India Dock Road, West India Dock Road and surrounding area by the end of the century – for dock-workers and sailors. In the early twentieth century there was one pub per sixty households in the North Millwall area on the Isle of Dogs. The Chinese and Indians first arrived on East India Company ships during a period of manpower shortage in the Napoleonic Wars. The first arrivals were housed in a barrack accommodating upwards of 1,000 men located at Shadwell but later moved to Wapping. Indians settled around Cable Street.

Rotherhithe had less destitution than around Wapping in the second half of the century. Work prospects improved further with the opening of each new dock and of Tower Bridge in 1894. Many Irish also lived in the area, which was a mixture of housing and industry, including flour mills, as well as the Peek Freans biscuit factory at Bermondsey. Casual dock workers gathered each day at the corner of Rotherhithe New Road and Lower Road in the hope of work in the Surrey Commercial Docks.

Several districts took the names of those who urbanized them. In 1852 Samuel Winkworth Silver opened the India Rubber Works on the river south of the Victoria Dock and there he built terraced houses for his workers, known as Silvertown. The property developer William Cubitt, younger brother of Thomas who had earlier used the soil excavated from St Katharine’s Dock to create the foundations for Pimlico, took leases on land belonging to the Countess of Glengall in the south-east of the Isle of Dogs. There he developed Cubitt Town, with timber wharves, sawmills, a cement factory, a pottery and residences for those working in the area. Cubitt financed the building of the local Christ Church. Canning Town to the north of the Royal Victoria Dock was largely developed by speculative builders in the 1870s at the time of the creation of the Royal Victoria Dock. It included no less than six schools, two music halls and numerous pubs. Only two roads led in and out of the Isle of Dogs. Cut off by docks and swing-bridges, these districts were largely selfsufficient, retaining a village-like remoteness from the general East End and the wider metropolis.

More obnoxious industries were established on the outskirts of the East End, around Bow Creek and Hackney Wick, including dye, glue and chemical works, all accessible by barges. Flour mills grew in number near Bow Bridge, an area that had a heritage of milling going back to medieval times. Over several decades the area lost its former rural tranquility, with its tea gardens and country houses, and the river waters became polluted.

The Victorian era, long before the introduction of the welfare state, was noted for its Christian missionary zeal and charitable efforts. Numerous missions were founded around the East End for the benefit of sailors and the local population. Organizations included the British & Foreign Sailors’ Society, which operated the Passmore Edwards Sailors’ Palace at Limehouse. The Methodists founded the Wesleyan Seamen’s Mission in 1843 and the Queen Victoria Seaman’s Rest opened in Poplar in the 1890s. The Anglican ministry ran the Missions to Seamen Institute on East India Dock Road from 1893. One example of a project for the local population was the Malvern Mission. Funded by the private Malvern College school in Worcestershire, a centre for the residents of the area was opened at Vincent Street in a deprived area at Canning Town, north of the Royal Victoria Dock. It was at that time dubbed ‘the worst street in London’ by a newspaper. The original intention was to educate local boys and spread the Christian faith. With the arrival of Reginald Kennedy-Cox in 1905 it became the Docklands Settlement Mission and a number of other branches were opened around the East End and beyond in subsequent years.

Those who worked in the docks, residing in small streets sandwiched between the docks, became communities where father, son and grandson all worked as dockers, as did their neighbours, and they married local women. These people were in the middle of the most cosmopolitan of environments, with ships, cargoes, crews, large numbers of immigrants, and passengers arriving from every corner of the world. Yet they generally remained as static, tight-knit communities, isolated from the rest of London and the wider world.

The Thames Conservancy

Complaints had long been made that the City of London Corporation, responsible for the river, and receiving large amounts in tolls from coal and other goods, were doing little to maintain its condition, particularly in relation to dredging. The state of the tideway deteriorated with the introduction of steam-powered passenger pleasure boats, of which there were fifty-seven on the river by 1830. Their relatively high speed created a wash that threatened to sink barges, lighters and wherries. Furthermore, the wash and the action of paddle wheels swept away the foreshore mud, making it dangerous for wooden vessels to rest at low tide. A state of war ensued between the trip boats and lightermen. The issues became more critical as steamships began to be used for coastal cargo-carrying during the 1830s.

There had been a continuous increase in the number of colliers entering the Port. The greatest part of coal stocks arriving were transferred onto lighters where it was stored until required for sale. Thus the open river was congested with colliers and storage lighters. Because they had further to travel upriver, it affected vessels berthing at St Katharine’s more than others. The Dock Company complained of the ineffectiveness of the City’s harbour masters in enforcing the by-law to maintain a 300-foot-wide navigable channel despite notification by Parliamentary committees on several occasions.

In 1836 a Parliamentary Select Committee was appointed to consider the issues. The solicitor to the Admiralty stated that the Thames, like all rivers, was the property of the Crown who granted the City the right of regulation and conservation. The neglect of the City however had resulted in the Admiralty becoming increasingly involved in the regulation of the river. The committee found that the City’s Navigation Committee comprised members with little experience or interest in the river. Their opinion was that conservation of the Thames should be transferred to a new body created specifically for that purpose. Despite strong condemnation of the City’s management of the Thames, no change was forthcoming. In the meantime, some of the problems were diminished by the introduction of the railways, which reduced the amount of coal arriving by boat.

The final impetus for the change in responsibility for the river was a dispute at the time of the building of the Thames Embankments. The City contested the Crown’s ownership of the riverbed. An accord was finally reached with the decision to create a Conservancy Board, created by Act of Parliament in 1857, with title in the bed and shore of the river from Staines downriver to Yantlet Creek. The new Thames Conservancy was given responsibility for regulation, preservation and safety, including the laying down of buoys and beacons and dredging. Any works carried out on or adjoining the river were to be under licence from the Board. Income was to be received from such licences, with a third payable to the Crown, as well as from tolls on steamers calling at piers and on shipping.

The Thames Conservancy initially consisted of twelve members appointed by the City, Trinity House, the Admiralty and the Board of Trade. In 1864 the Board was increased to eighteen members, including representatives of vessels and dock owners. In 1866 the Thames Conservancy took over responsibility of the Upper Thames, with the size of the Board increased accordingly.

The Millwall Docks

Despite the fragile finances of the existing docks there were still those who believed that an opportunity existed for new docks. This was particularly the case following the repeal of the Corn Laws, which had blocked cheap imports of North American grain between 1815 and 1846. The West India Docks had opened across the north of the Isle of Dogs at the beginning of the century yet fifty years later the centre of the peninsula remained as meadow where cows grazed, much as it had done since it was drained in the Middle Ages. At its centre stood a former chapel that had been incorporated into a farmhouse. Around the surrounding embankment stood seven windmills and small independent wharves owned by shipwrights and maritime businesses.

In the late 1850s one of the Millwall wharf-owners, oil merchant Nathaniel Fenner, had the idea of creating a T-shaped enclosed dock behind the wharves, with the central basin leading northwards towards the West India Docks. His dock was to be connected to the river by locks to both the east and west of the peninsula. Fenner’s business model was different to earlier docks in that its quays would be let out to individual businesses to run their own operations. The idea was that surrounding land would attract factories and shipbuilding yards, each paying rent to the company. He commissioned the engineer Robert Fairlie to draw up plans but, needing capital for the project, contacted the more eminent engineer William Wilson. Wilson submitted the plan to Parliament and attracted the interest of further developers and engineers. Fenner and Fairlie had in the meantime been sidelined so they raised objections to the Parliamentary Bill. In order to pacify them, Wilson and his partners paid the originators of the scheme substantial sums of money, with Fenner given a seat on the Board of the newly-formed Millwall Freehold Land & Dock Company.

Two hundred and four acres of land were acquired to the south of the West India Docks in order to create 52 acres of dock and 152 acres for associated purposes. Financing for the project proved more difficult than anticipated. (The long-established East & West India Dock Company was already struggling to raise more than half a million pounds in order to transform their City Canal across the Isle of Dogs into a new south dock. There was also a general financial crisis in London when the Overend, Gurney bank went bankrupt in May 1866). The Company was forced to enter into finance arrangement fees that increased the amount to be raised but still did not achieve the objective. Plans were scaled back to two basins and altered to make the project more affordable. Work to create the Millwall Docks began in 1866 and was completed in a year and a half, employing 3,000 construction workers and steam-powered pumping engines to drain the marshy land.

When completed in March 1868 the Millwall Docks had an unusual thirtysix-acre inverted L-shaped basin, with an entrance to the river on the west side of the peninsula. It was the first of the docks to be created with a dry dock, of 413 feet in length. The planned entrance to the east never materialized. While ships were beginning to get larger, the Millwall Docks were opened with an entrance lock of only eighty feet in width, which would never be enlarged due to the width and depth of the dock itself, restricting the size of vessels that could enter.

As with the Victoria Dock, Millwall had a rail connection, accommodating passengers from the beginning. By that time a branch of the Blackwall Railway passed through the West India Dock down to its terminus at North Greenwich station at the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs, serving the Millwall quays en route. Steam locomotives were banned from the West India Docks as a fire precaution however, so in the early years the trains were pulled by horses on the Isle of Dogs section of the railway. The line operated until it was abandoned in 1926.

In order to survive, the rates at the Millwall Docks were low from the start, so this added further competition to the port but without creating any significant profit for itself. Attempts to attract timber business away from the Surrey Docks were unsuccessful and in the event it specialized in grain from the Baltic. The Millwall Equipment Company, a subsidiary company, operated the finest granary facilities in the Port of London. A financial crisis occurred in 1898 when it was discovered that the dock’s manager had been falsifying the accounts for several years.

In creating an industrial area on what had previously been meadows, the original developers were successful, progressing gradually as new businesses arrived and evolved. ‘[The whole Isle of Dogs] was given up to accommodating heavy industries that had replaced the old riverside crafts of Georgian days, such as boatbuilding in wood and the twisting of ropes by hand,’ wrote East London historian Millicent Rose. ‘In the new industrial town of Millwall, cables were manufactured by steam, out of Riga hemp and iron, of a weight suitable for use by the new iron ships. There were cement works, galvanized iron works and refineries of turpentine. The old windmills disappeared from the river-bank, and in the section opposite Deptford they were replaced by the yard of the well-known shipbuilding firm, Scott Russell & Co.’ The shipyard actually predated the Millwall Docks. It was there that Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s giant steamship the Great Eastern was launched.

Two notable businesses that were based at Millwall, both on the south quay, were Hooper’s Telegraph Works, where from 1871 telegraph cable was produced and loaded directly onto cable-laying ships, and the McDougall’s flour mill. Alexander McDougall began making self-raising flour in Manchester in 1865 following the discovery of a new type of baking powder. His five sons originally built a fertilizer factory at Millwall in 1871 but in the following decades they further developed their site for the milling of their famous flour. The original mill was destroyed in an enormous fire in 1898 and a replacement, the Wheatsheaf Mill, was completed in 1900. Further development took place in the 1930s and it continued to operate until closed by the Rank Hovis McDougall conglomerate in 1982.


The illustration from The Illustrated London News of March 1868 that accompanied the newspiece of the opening of the Millwall Docks

Riverside wharves

The docks were mostly hidden behind high walls, so for the general public the riverside wharves were the visible sign of the busy port, particularly those in the Upper Pool seen from London Bridge.

The number of wharves along the river greatly increased from the 1830s following the ending of the docks’ monopolies and the widening of customs bonding provisions. By the latter part of the nineteenth century there were about 300 wharves along the Thames to where around 75 per cent of goods arriving at the enclosed docks was syphoned off. With independent and often dynamic owners they became an important part of the Port. The dock companies each employed a certain number of permanent dock staff, or ‘perms’. That wasn’t usually the case at the wharves, where much of the work was carried out by casual labourers.

Some wharves had deep-water berths at which ships could directly unload, while others merely accepted goods arriving by lighter. There were those handling general cargo while others specialized in certain types of commodity. Raw materials could be directly discharged to riverside manufacturers of a particular kind of product and perhaps load whatever it was they produced. A major raw material was coal, shipped around the coast from Newcastle, and used to power many riverside gas, electricity and hydraulic power stations as well as factories. Following an explosion at the Victoria Dock in 1869, an Act of Parliament restricted the carriage of petroleum to no further upriver than a wharf at Shell Haven at Thurrock. From 1912 the Shell Oil Company operated a refinery there and petroleum and gas products continue to arrive, be stored and refined along that section of the Thames Estuary.

When the Butlers Wharf Company completed their wharves and warehouses at the Pool of London between Tower Bridge and St Saviour’s Dock in 1873 they were the largest complex of warehouses on the river. They stretched from the riverside 130 metres inland. Shad Thames, a narrow street, ran behind the riverside wharves, separating them from the warehouses behind. Tall warehouses towered high each side of Shad Thames, crossed at various heights by lattice wrought-iron bridges across which dockers could move goods. The Butlers Wharf Company specialized mainly in general goods such as grain, rubber, spices, fruit, wines, spirits and tea.

A close neighbour to Butler’s Wharf was Hay’s Wharf in the Upper Pool, on the south bank of the river at Southwark. It had been established by Alexander Hay in the mid-seventeenth century, initially for brewing and wharfage and the latter proved to be more profitable. By the nineteenth century it was owned by the Humphrey family who stored tea and valuable cargoes. In 1861 a major fire began at nearby Cotton’s Wharf, which spread along the riverside destroying three acres of property and contents estimated in value at £2 million. The Humphreys took the opportunity to rebuild Hay’s Wharf with the innovation of refrigeration. In the twentieth century the Hay’s Wharf business owned most of the riverside wharfage between Tower Bridge and London Bridge, handling a large part of the foodstuffs imported into the capital. Their total warehousing space by then occupied nearly 1,000 square metres, the largest such complex in the world. There they stored three quarters of London’s provisions such as bacon, cheese, eggs, tea, coffee and fruit, and the wharves were known as ‘London’s Larder’. Until the Second World War, the quayside cranes at Hay’s Wharf, the largest concentration in the entire Port and visible to anyone crossing London or Tower Bridge, were a reminder to anyone of the importance of London’s international sea trade.

The Liverpool sugar refiner Henry Tate obtained the rights to produce sugar in cubes from its German inventor and purchased a derelict shipyard at Silvertown where in 1878 he built a refinery. The Scottish shipowner Abram Lyle opened a refinery a short distance along the river in 1883 at the former Plaistow and Odham’s wharves to produce his famous Golden Syrup. (The two companies amalgamated in 1921 to form Tate & Lyle, after the deaths of their founders, who never actually met).

At the end of the nineteenth century there was an almost continuous line of wharves along both banks, downriver from London Bridge to the Isle of Dogs and Greenwich. They varied in size and type, from massive, brick blocks of warehousing to simple timber sheds. Some of the largest amongst them were Fresh Wharf in the City, which had existed since medieval times; Free Trade Wharf at Ratcliff; the Aberdeen Steam Navigation Company’s Aberdeen Wharf at Limehouse; Morton’s food factory (whose works football team became Millwall FC); Bellamy’s Jetty at Rotherhithe, which could handle ships too large for the Upper Port; and Thames Tunnel Mills, also at Rotherhithe. Some had evocative and historic names, such as Black Eagle Wharf, King Henry’s Wharves, Limekiln Wharf, St Saviour’s Dock and St Olave’s Wharf.

The Royal Albert Dock

In the mid-nineteenth century the economy was improving, demand for consumer goods increasing, and in 1869 the Suez Canal opened, increasing the amount of business with Asia and the Far East carried on large ocean-going ships. Liverpool, with superior facilities for larger steam ships, was prospering at London’s expense. By the second half of the century the deep-water Victoria was the more successful of London & St Katharine’s Thames docks, yet ships continued to increase in size, requiring even larger facilities. London & St Katharine therefore decided to expand the facilities at Plaistow.

When the Victoria Dock Company obtained their Act of Parliament in 1850 it included the option to acquire additional land to the east. The idea was to create a holding dock and shortcut from Gallions Reach, avoiding an additional four miles journey upriver along Woolwich Reach to their entrance lock. That plan was never implemented and the land was eventually purchased by the Victoria Dock’s new owners, the London & St Katharine Dock Company.

In April 1879 the Company received royal assent to name this massive new dock after the Queen’s late consort, to open as the Royal Albert Dock, with its older, smaller sister renamed the Royal Victoria Dock. The architect was Sir Alexander Rendel and the contractors were Lucas & Aird, whose partner John Aird had been one of the developers of the earlier Millwall Dock. The building methods were more modern than had been previously used, employing a steam dredger and cranes and using concrete instead of bricks. Nevertheless, 3,000 men were employed in the construction. The cost was relatively low, partly because concrete could be produced on site using excavated gravel.

The new dock was 1¾ miles in length, 490 feet wide, with 87 acres of water area and 16,500 feet of quays. The largest ships of the time could be accommodated, with a massive entrance lock measuring 550 by 80 feet, capable of accepting ships of up to 12,000 tons, double that of the West India Docks. Shortly after, a second, deeper entrance was created due to the threat of competition from a new dock at Tilbury. Ships could enter from the river at Gallions Reach in the east. Linked at its western end to the Victoria Dock, even ships from the latter could then avoid the journey along the tidal river at Woolwich Reach. The Royal Albert was the first to be lit by electricity, with lamps on 80-foot-tall poles allowing round-the-clock working. The cranes were hydraulically-powered. Railway tracks ran alongside each quay allowing cargoes to be directly loaded into wagons. The tracks ran into the company’s sheds where the lines were sunk below the floor surface, allowing goods to be easily unloaded. The quays were lined with hydrants to provide docked vessels with fresh water. Ships could be repaired in either of the dock’s two dry docks on the western edge of the south quay. The Royal Victoria and Royal Albert Docks together created a gigantic artificial waterway of 175 acres of water with 7 miles of quays.

The Great Eastern Railway passed through the dock property by means of a tunnel under the short canal that linked the Victoria and Albert docks. Connaught Way passed over that same point and Manor Way over the dock entrance by swing bridge, where the basin opened to the east into Gallions Reach. By then international travel was increasing for the general public and a passenger terminus was established adjacent to the dock, together with the Gallions Hotel.

The new Royal Albert Dock was opened in June 1880 by the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, on behalf of his mother Queen Victoria. At the same time the chairman of the London & St Katharine Dock Company, George H. Chambers, was knighted. The dock specialized in grain and, after refrigeration was introduced, frozen meat, fruit and vegetables.

The Tilbury Docks

The success of, and the envy caused by, the large new Royal docks spurred the rival East & West India Dock Company into action. The Suez Canal was bringing increased business to the Port but not to the East & West India with their old, shallow, outdated docks and entrance locks too small to accept the new, larger vessels. Telegraphic communication by underwater cable resulted in better communication regarding a vessel’s arrival and therefore less need for warehousing. There was also a threat from yet another company that had in 1880 successfully put a plan before Parliament for new deep-water docks at Dagenham in Essex. A breach in the river wall there as far back as 1707 had created a pool that could be converted into a dock. (That plan never proceeded and the site was eventually used by the Ford Motor Company for their new factory).

The East & West India chairman, the merchant Harry Dobree, and his engineer Augustus Manning, carefully chose the site for a new dock. Ships had for centuries moored at Gravesend in Kent, twenty-six miles downriver of London Bridge, while they waited for the incoming tide that would sweep them up to the city. The Company used agents to secretly take options on marshland around Tilbury on the opposite bank in Essex before making its intentions public by announcing them to shareholders. The advantage of creating docks there was that an entire day was saved in each direction for passengers or freight transferring to railway, compared with continuing upstream to London. Pilotage on the long journey upriver would also not be necessary. Cargoes were to be swiftly transferred to or from railway wagons and ships and thus largescale warehousing was not part of the plan.

An Act of Parliament was passed in July 1882. The Company were highly optimistic about their new dock. They planned on such a large scale that they must have believed that either trade in and out of London would increase dramatically or that they could steal away the majority of the business from the Royal docks. The area of the site acquired was 450 acres.

Unfortunately, the work did not proceed according to plan. The Company and its contractors, Kirk & Randell, underestimated the scale and cost of the work, from a budget of £1,100,000 to a final cost of £2,800,000. The contractors requested large advances and, when they unexpectedly found blue clay, claimed additional costs. The exasperated dock company had them ejected from the site in 1884, leading to years of expensive litigation. For a while the East & West India continued with their own men until new contractors, Lucas & Aird, were appointed.

When Tilbury opened, ships entered a tidal basin of 19 acres, through an entrance lock of 700 by 80 feet, then passed into one of three parallel docks – the East, Central and West – totalling 56 acres of water space, allowing vessels to enter at any time, whatever the tide. Colliers unloaded fuel for ships at a jetty in the tidal basin; two dry docks were incorporated between the tidal basin and docks, and round the basins were 24 sheds, each measuring 300 by 120 feet.

As it was such a remote location the Company created tenement-block residences for the workers and managers. The only land connection to the world beyond the docks was by railway and initially there was no road link other than a track to supply food to the workers from local farms. Fifty miles of railway sidings connected the quays to London and the wider country, with trucks able to pass under the cranes. The London, Tilbury & Southend Railway ran passenger trains every thirty minutes to Fenchurch Street in the City, a journey of thirty-five minutes. Freight was carried to a newly-created depot at Whitechapel, later known as the Commercial Road Warehouse. The railway company undertook to charge no more to send goods to Tilbury than to other docks.

The Company considered that a hotel for passengers was an important part of their image and they opened the Tilbury Hotel. Under the stewardship of Leopold C. Bentley and, with a spectacular riverside location, it became an opulent institution.

The work was finally completed and the first ship, the Glenfruin, entered the docks at the end of its voyage from China in April 1886. Celebrations took place in the hotel, attended by the Company chairman, the Lord Mayor of London and the shipowner Sir Donald Currie of the Castle Shipping Line. Tilbury was to be the last dock system until the twenty-first century to be created by private enterprise as part of the Port of London.


The River Thames from the Upper Pool downriver to Lower Hope Reach showing the locations of the major dock groups as they existed between the 1890s and 1950s.

The Company’s optimism was short-lived. Thames lighters were not designed to go so far downriver and the lightmen and wharfingers boycotted the new docks. While Tilbury was being built the rival London & St Katharine Company had been negotiating with merchants and offered inducements for goods to be landed at their docks. The shipping trade waited to see what East & West India would offer in return. In the meantime the vast new docks stood almost empty for the first few months. Their answer was to offer the Clan Line, which operated steamers to India and South Africa, to dock at Tilbury instead of the Royal Albert in return for half rates for ten years. Others followed but to attract the business the docks were operating at a loss. With Tilbury offering such low rates, other docks and wharves had to do the same to maintain trade. Thus it was to the advantage of shipowners, while both the London & St Katharine and the East & West India Companies suffered financially.

The plight of the dock companies and wharf owners

The lack of initial success at Tilbury was too much for the East & West India Company. The fierce competition between all the dock companies and the wharfingers had cut profits to the extent that it became impossible for them to attract new capital. In 1887 the East & West India cut salaries and maintenance budgets in an effort to stay afloat but in March 1888 they fell into receivership. At around the same time, unable to survive financially, a number of riverside wharves were disposed of by their owners.

During the following months a merger of operations with the London & St Katharine (but not ownership, assets or profits) was agreed. Both companies retained their individual boards of directors, although reduced in size. A full merger was not possible due to the complex financial position of the India Company and pending litigation. It was a structure that had previously been used by railway companies. The new organization was known as the London & India Docks Joint Committee and took effect from January 1889. Chair of the committee was C.M. Norwood, who at the same time chaired the London & St Katharine Company. That year the Joint Committee made a mutually beneficial agreement with the leading wharfingers regarding landing rates, known as the ’Dock & Wharf Produce Agreement’.

Charles Morgan Norwood was a maritime merchant and shipowner from Hull who held the Parliamentary seat of that borough for twenty years. He had taken legal action for libel against Samuel Plimsoll following an accusation of dangerously overloading one of the ships he owned. As a result, Norwood was involved in the creation of the ships’ loading mark standard, which became known as the ‘Plimsoll line’. He died in 1891.

In early 1898, nine years after the formation of the Joint Committee, a full amalgamation of the two companies was finally agreed with creditors and shareholders with a complex structure. The London & India Docks Company formally came into being on 1 January 1901.

The Surrey Docks at the Rotherhithe Peninsula on the opposite bank had remained profitable and independent. They primarily handled timber, as well as grain destined for the local mills and biscuit-makers. Handling eighty per cent of London’s timber trade, in 1904 enough wood passed through to gird the equator to a depth of three and a half feet. The complex of docks was competently managed by timber and grain men who continually upgraded and improved facilities and their specialized trade meant they suffered less from the effects of the free-water clause. The ships that transported those goods were smaller than other ocean-going cargo ships. As such the Surrey Docks could for a long time survive without the need to adapt to larger ships like those on the north bank. However, by the end of the nineteenth century vessels of up to 8,000 tons were being employed in the timber trade from North America, too large for the Surrey Docks. The Company embarked on another phase of upgrading by adapting their Greenland Dock, which had been in existence since it was opened as Howland Dock 200 years earlier, for larger ships. The eminent Sir John Wolfe Barry, who was at the same time working on the new Tower Bridge, was commissioned as the engineer. It was not an easy project, with fine Thanet sand unexpectedly filling the foundations and entrance lock. The dock more than doubled in size, with an entrance lock of 550 feet long and 80 feet wide. The newly-enlarged Greenland Dock opened in 1904 spanning twenty-two acres and connecting with the Canada Dock. At a cost of £940,000 and taking a decade, the project had cost far more than had been budgeted and caused financial problems for the Surrey Commercial Docks Company. To increase trade they belatedly began competing with the docks on the north bank. Two Canadian shipping lines carrying butter and cheese were tempted away from the Royal Victoria Dock, who retaliated by offering rates to timber ships at a quarter less than the Surrey Docks. It turned out to be the final nail in the coffin of the independent dock companies.

The formation of trade unions

Even when jobs were plentiful a port labourer was unlikely to work more than four days in any week and the wages were low. It was not uncommon for casual workers to earn a pound or two in a week and then nothing further for a fortnight. To put that into perspective, a typical rent in the East End at that time was around 5 shillings (25 decimal pence) per week and it was common for families to fall behind with their payments. If a docker became particularly desperate he might walk the twenty miles each way from the East End to Tilbury in the hope of finding a few hours work. It was an insecure and precarious existence for workers and their families and attracted those who were already down on their luck and had failed to find employment elsewhere. Once they became part of the casual-labour dock pool of workers it was difficult to escape to take their chance elsewhere. The need to be constantly waiting for work from early each morning, and with little or no money in their pockets, meant they had to live within walking distance of the docks. The call-on became a way of life for generations of families and entire neighbourhoods.

Colonel G.R. Birt, general manager of the Millwall Docks, explained to a Parliamentary Committee that men would arrive outside the dock gates who were so poor that ‘they cannot run, their boots would not permit them’. They arrived hungry, having not had food since the previous day and could only work an hour because ‘their hunger will not allow them to continue’. They would leave with their hour’s pay in order to buy some food. To those who complained that dockers would not work after four o’clock in the afternoon, he explained that was because by that time their strength had gone due to hunger. Dock work was also dangerous, with a high accident rate. A hospital chairman, quoted in evidence to a Parliamentary Committee towards the end of the century, stated that an accident occurred in the docks every quarter of an hour, day and night. A Home Office report in 1929 put only mining as more hazardous than dock-working, with twelve per cent of workers making successful claims for compensation during their working lives.

Labour was cheap and abundant in the nineteenth century, with more casual workers than available employment at most times. The Mansion House Committee, assembled by the Lord Mayor in 1889, estimated there were 20,000 unemployed workers in London. With such a perilous existence it was difficult for them to demand better conditions. The amount of work in the Port fluctuated according to the economy and the season however, and at busy times there was a shortage of labour. Workers occasionally exploited the situation when too many vessels needed unloading at the same time, taking the opportunity to demand increased remuneration. There were strikes at the shipyards at Deptford during the busy years at the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries while the wars against France were taking place. As early as July 1810, when workers were still employed on a full-time basis, around 1,000 men at the London Docks had struck for an increase from eighteen shillings to one guinea per week. They were unsuccessful in their claim and returned to work after several days. In 1821 casually-employed coopers at the West India Docks struck for increased wages. The dock company attempted to take on coopers from as far afield as Bristol and Liverpool but there was solidarity with the London workers amongst compatriots in those ports. The Company then appealed to the Duke of York to provide experienced men from the armed forces on the grounds that ships remained unloaded, sugar was deteriorating on board and customs revenues were not being collected. The tactics were successful and according to Henry Longlands, Secretary to the West India Dock Company, the coopers ‘returned to their work unconditionally’.

Until the latter part of the century workers lacked a body that represented, organized and supported them; indeed ‘combinations’, what we now call trade unions, were illegal in Britain until 1824. Fifty years later, in 1871, the same year that the Trade Union Act was passed in Britain, Colonel J.L. du Plat Taylor, general manager of the ailing East & West India Docks, attempted to economize by reducing the pay of labourers from 20 to 15 shillings per week. A meeting of workers was held, presided over by Reverend Hansard, a rector of Bethnal Green. The dockers felt themselves to be in a weak position, however: they were already so poor they could ill afford to lose further pay by striking. That autumn the Irish trade unionist Patrick Hennessey arranged further meetings under the auspices of what became the Labour Protection League. Hennessey was appointed secretary of the union but several months later absconded with the association’s funds.

Despite its setbacks, membership of the Labour Protection League gained momentum, with support from stevedores, wharf workers and those working in the tea warehouses in the City and East End. By the summer of 1872 the association had 12,000 members. Later that decade the men working on British ships that berthed in the port were joining the newly-formed National Amalgamated Sailors’ & Firemen’s Union.

In June 1872 the men at the West India Dock went on strike, demanding an increase from four pence to six pence per hour and they were joined by workers from the Millwall, St Katharine’s and London Docks. It was a particularly busy period and a rare occasion of full employment. The dock company were unable to find other workers to replace those on strike, agreed a compromise of an extra penny per hour and work resumed. Great celebrations were held at Shoreditch Town Hall, attended by 20,000 people from all along the north and south banks of the river, with music provided by bands. Reverend Hansard presided over a meeting inside the building and those outside led a joyful march to Hoxton Market.

Joy amongst the workers over their five pence an hour was to last only a short time. The latter years of the 1870s saw a downturn in trade that continued for a decade, with workers laid off in the port. Requirements for greater skills within the docks had led to a small number of well-paid and experienced staff and fewer casual labourers were being taken on, leading to great hardship. Those who were hired were put under increasing pressure. With the advent of steamships that could sail in all weathers, shipowners demanded rapid turnaround. Rather than being hired for a half day, as they were previously, labourers were called on and laid off on an hourly basis. The ‘plus money’ bonus that had been paid in earlier decades became an arbitrary payment. Men could wait outside the dock gates for hours or even days for as little as five pence worth of work. To save the dock management the effort of hiring men each day, the task was instead delegated to ruthless contractors who in many cases had to be bribed in order to gain work.

In 1888 there was a well-publicized strike by female packers at the Bryant & May match factory at Bow, not far from the docks. That encouraged workers in other industries to agitate for better conditions. In the following year the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers was formed under the leadership of Will Thorne and they were successful in reducing the working hours at Beckton Gas Works, just to the east of the Royal Docks. Thorne was one of several eloquent and charismatic leaders emerging at that time who were able to negotiate with managers. Another was Ben Tillett who had experience as a sailor as well as a casual labourer at the docks where he endured the degrading call-on. He was working at the Monuments Quay Warehouse and heard that tea workers at the Cutler Street warehouses in the City were planning to fight a pay reduction. Attending a meeting where they discussed action to fight a pay cut, he was given the position of secretary of the Tea Operatives’ Union. Despite being afflicted with a stammer he was nevertheless an eloquent speaker and was not shy of being in the limelight.

The ‘docker’s tanner’

On 13 August 1889 Ben Tillett met with some workers at the South West India Dock. Instructed to speedily unload the Lady Armstrong with a full cargo, the workers walked out when not paid adequate ‘plus money’, which they believed to be owed for their effort. Tillett gathered together various other leading union activists to meet at the dock the following day and they formed a strike committee under his leadership to represent the men and to organize and spread the industrial action. By the 15th the entire labour force at the East and West India Docks had walked out. What had started as a small dispute regarding the unloading of one ship led to one of Britain’s first great industrial disputes.

During the following weeks The Times was to report extensively and reasonably objectively, perhaps sympathetically, on the strike, unlike some other newspapers that called for the arrest of the strike leaders. On some days The Times reports covered two pages, or more, yet they began modestly with a brief news item on the Monday following the commencement of the action. It informed its readers that on the previous day [Sunday] 2,000 of an estimated 10,000 strikers marched in procession from the East End, along Commercial Road to the City,

with the intention of claiming for a deputation an interview with the London & India Docks Committee at their offices in Leadenhall-street. A party of six were introduced to Mr C.M. Norwood (the chairman) and some of the directors who happened to be in the building. A long interview followed, in the course of which the men urged their demands. In reply, Mr Norwood stated that the directors would always be ready to listen to any grievances which the men might have … but he could promise them nothing until they were in a different frame of mind. He urged them to return to their work.

The processions along Commercial Road and through the City became a daily event. The following day, The Times continued:

[the] whole of the proceedings … by the men were very enthusiastic, and began early in the morning by the formation of a procession, which was a mile-and-three-quarters long, and a number of men in it carried poles with crusts, penny loaves, bones, vegetable tops, and other refuse fixed to them, to show the fare they lived on.

As the days went on the processions grew in size, numbering up to 100,000 and taking an hour to pass a given point. The marchers included many sympathetic workers other than dockers. They arrived at Dock House in Leadenhall Street at one o’clock each day and ended with a mass meeting at Tower Hill, Hyde Park or elsewhere. The purpose of the marches was to garner support from the public, maintain morale amongst the strikers and create some discipline amongst what was generally an undisciplined group. Each day City workers came out of their offices to see the spectacle, with its flags and banners, Doggett’s race winners in their scarlet uniforms with huge pewter badges, and marching bands playing the Marseillaise – the national anthem of France, in memory of the French Revolution. Despite the vast numbers, the men marched peacefully.

At the head of the processions strode the committed socialist and flamboyant dresser John Burns, in his distinctive straw boater hat. Earlier that year he had won a seat representing Battersea on the newly-established London County Council in which he was to become a driving force in its early years. Despite growing up in poverty in Lambeth, the sixteenth child in a family supported only by their mother, Burns was an eloquent public speaker with a gift of expression, credited as coining the description of the River Thames as ‘liquid history’. Along with Tillett, Burns was a tireless organizer and skillful negotiator but his greatest contribution to the strike was his powerful oratory at the many mass meetings that were to maintain the solidarity and determination of the strikers.

Tillett and Burns were joined on the strikers’ organizing committee, which based itself at the Wade’s Arms in Jeremiah Street, Poplar, by Tom Mann, a former colleague of Burns at the Battersea branch of the Social Democratic Federation. Mann was a committed trade unionist and member of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers who had been campaigning within the socialist movement for the introduction of an eight-hour working day. Earlier that year he had been a key person in the campaign to unite the gasworkers. During the strike, Mann ensured the effectiveness of round-the-clock picket lines at the dock gates as well as the issuing of food tickets that could be spent locally.

On Monday, 19 August, the strike at the East and West India Docks extended to the men of the Millwall, Victoria, Albert and Tilbury Docks. Significantly they were also joined by 1,800 members of the Amalgamated Stevedores’ Union, led by the Irishman Tom McCarthy. Stevedores were the highlyexperienced, self-employed and generally well-paid men hired by shipowners (rather than the dock companies) to oversee the loading of ships. They issued a statement that explained:

We, the union stevedores of London, knowing the condition of the dock labourers, have determined to support their movement. We do this not to inconvenience the brokers, shipowners, or master stevedores, as our quarrel is not with them, but we feel it our duty to support our poorer brothers.

By 22 August the industrial action had spread throughout the entire port, including lightermen, warehouse workers and wharfmen and other low-paid workers, numbering perhaps as many as 70,000. Unlike their counterparts on the north side of the river, dockers at the Surrey Docks largely dealt with unloading timber and had their own particular demands regarding how they were paid. The lightermen, who were employed by master lightermen, initially came out in sympathy with the dockers but during the following weeks began to air their own grievances and make their separate demands. Both these latter groups formed their own strike committees, working in parallel and in conjunction with the main strike committee. The leaders of the Surrey Docks men, led by James Sullivan, became known as the ‘Sayes Court committee’.

Other union leaders and socialists came to the aid of the dockers, including Will Thorne of the National Gasworkers, Joseph Havelock Wilson of the National Sailors & Firemen, and the publisher Henry Hyde Champion. During the following weeks, workers in other nearby businesses, such as the McDougall’s flour mill at the Millwall Docks, ceased work but in some cases they claimed their primary reason was due to intimidation from strikers rather than any demands of their own. The strike committee issued a statement that they ‘strongly deprecate the rash action taken by unorganized workmen not directly connected with the dock workmen’ and felt that it hindered their own efforts.

‘The directors’, as the dock-managers committee were referred to, were under pressure from both the workers and the shipowners whose vessels lay unloaded in the port. Thomas Sutherland, chairman of the P&O Company, wrote to The Times stating that both dockers and shipowners were being ‘sweated by the dock company’. He proposed that in future shipowners should take responsibility for unloading vessels rather than the dock companies and even create their own docks. Norwood’s opinion was that the shipping lines were ‘spoiling his game’ regarding breaking the strike, which further incensed the workers.

The strike committee worked long hours each day. They made demands to the directors that there should be only two daily call-ons; a minimum of four hours work each time men were hired; the ending of hire by contractors; six pence per hour in wages for daytime work; an increase from one penny to two pence per hour extra for overtime; and an end to the arbitrary ‘plus money’ bonus.

At a rally at Tower Hill Burns had used the phrase ‘the full round orb of the dockers’ tanner’ to describe the hourly rate they sought (‘tanner’ being slang for six pence) and it became the rallying cry of the campaign. The daily mass rally on 25 August was held in Hyde Park where Tillett, McCarthy and others addressed the audience. As usual, the most rousing speech was given by Burns:

‘The letters and speeches of the directors which had been published were unworthy of men, and were the language of ghouls in human shape, and the sentiments of financial Jack the Rippers.’ (Loud cheers from the audience) ‘But the women were setting a good example to them, for in one street they had erected a banner with the words on it ‘No rent paid in the East of London till the docker gets his tanner’’ (Loud cheers)

Early in the strike the employers attempted to bring in blackleg workers. They were perhaps hired by William Coulson – ‘the Apostle of free labour’, financially supported by Randolph Churchill – who ran an organization to supply strike-breaking labour. Tom Mann organized pickets to prevent any nonstrikers entering the docks. Blackleg workers from Liverpool, Southampton, Newcastle and Dundee were brought in to sleep in the docks but local butchers and bakers were persuaded to not supply them with food. When the strikers

found 40 at the East India Docks, a great effort was made to induce the men to come out and not to remain in to injure the cause. The men said they had been engaged for a fortnight certain at 5s [five shillings] per day; but they were told they were wanted for railway metal work, and they were not informed that there was any strike on. There were more men, they said, to be sent on from Liverpool and the district. Eventually they all came out, and six were at once taken to Euston and sent back to try to stop other men from coming to London.

Furthermore, the strike committee announced they had received telegrams from each of the other major docks of Liverpool, Glasgow, Grimsby and Hull pledging to strike in support if any London-bound freight arrived at their port. Nevertheless, a certain amount of work continued throughout the strike, carried out by blacklegs. P&O and other shipping lines were successful in diverting their steamers to Southampton where the docks were kept busy.

The strike was a unique event, which caught the imagination of the general public. Trade unions were a relatively new phenomenon and strikes on this scale still unknown. Most Londoners knew the Thames, particularly because of the contemporary popularity of taking a trip down the river on a steamer. Yet hitherto few had understood the workings of the London freight docks and of the sufferings of the workers. In general, the public were sympathetic. In part that was because Henry Hyde Champion, one of the founders of the Fabian Society, acted as press officer to ensure the workers’ side of the story was published by the British and foreign press who came to the strike headquarters each day.

There was great hardship for the workers who already struggled to survive and were unpaid during the industrial action, some coming close to starvation. As early as 24 October The Times reported that:

some of them declared that they had no food and were suffering already from hunger. A few charitable persons came and distributed 3d [three pence] tickets for food, whilst at one or two committee rooms small loaves of bread, with cheese, were issued. Many poor men were looking very haggard and serious, and were asking each other how long the strike was likely to last.

Two days later the same paper reported:

On account of the want severely felt by thousands of men, women and children in the East-end through the strike, General Booth [of the Salvation Army] opened his cheap food and shelter depot, 21a East India Dock-road, yesterday, until 1 o’clock to supply soup at half the usual price, and will open it again today. All the food at this depot is to be obtained at half-price for one week, or until the termination of the present difficulties.

By early September another nearby Salvation Army shelter on West India Dock Road was serving up to 8,000 men and children each day. Other churches also arranged soup kitchens. The numerous pubs in the districts that surrounded the docks were normally kept busy but they stood empty during the strike, the men having no income to pay for drinks. Three weeks into the strike The Times reported:

At the Wade’s Arms, the headquarters of the Strike Committee, some 2000 poor labourers collected about 8 o’clock, and standing there in the drenching rain they presented a most woe-begone appearance. The ravages of hunger were clearly traceable on nearly all their countenances, and they waited patiently out in the wet for tickets which would be the means of procuring them food, of which they stood in so much need. An idea of the extent of the existing distress may be gathered when it is mentioned that yesterday upwards of 16,000 relief tickets were distributed …

Decisions on who was eligible to receive tickets must have been difficult. At the end of the campaign John Burns alluded to those who have made a living by false pretences and The Times mentioned ‘idle loafers and corner men’ who had benefitted from the strike funds. The strike committee were able to provide the tickets due to donations from far and wide. The radical Star newspaper, edited by the MP and Irish nationalist Thomas Power (‘Tay Pay’) O’Connor, had initiated a relief fund by its readers that raised £6,000. The British public contributed £10,000 with a further £1,000 from street collections. Workers in Melbourne, Australia, many of whom had emigrated from England and still felt a strong bond with the London dockers, sent the massive sum of £30,000 and there were small amounts from France, Belgium, New York, Philadelphia and Berlin. A total of over £48,000 was received by the strike committee, which was distributed to strikers in the form of one shilling food coupons.

By the end of August various issues between the Strike and Joint Committees had been resolved except the key point regarding the extra penny per hour. On the 30th of that month the 81-year old Cardinal Henry Manning, Archbishop of Westminster, took it upon himself to attempt to break the deadlock. His intention was to visit the dock company directors along with the Home Secretary and Lord Mayor of London but he could not locate either of them. Instead he was accompanied by the Deputy Mayor and acting head of the Metropolitan Police, yet found little sympathy for compromise from the employers. To his plea they should not employ imported labour from Holland, as was rumoured, they responded that it was their business who they hired. Manning departed with the thought that he had ‘never in my life preached to so impenitent a congregation’.

The Cardinal’s efforts seem to have at least achieved one thing of significance: several days later the Lord Mayor of London, Alderman James Whitehead, formed a Mansion House Committee, or ‘Committee of Conciliation’ as it became known, to arbitrate between the two sides in the dispute. It initially included the Cardinal as well as the Bishop of London, Sir John Lubbock MP (president of the London Chamber of Commerce), Sydney Buxton MP for Poplar, and Lord Brassey. Following discussion amongst themselves they proposed the dock companies pay the increase but that it be delayed until the following March. That evening they met with Tillett and Burns who agreed on the principal of a delay but that the rise should take place in January. Surprisingly, despite all their previous rebuttals, after a stormy debate, Norwood and the directors agreed to accept the compromise. When Tillett and Burns presented it to the strike committee however, it was rejected, to their surprise. The first months of each year were a slack period when casual labourers were anyway likely to be out of work and it was therefore important for them that an increase was given before the end of the year in order to get back on their feet. The rejection of the January compromise angered the Lord Mayor, the Bishop of London and the dock company directors.

The Bishop took no further part in proceedings. Tillett anyway found a lack of sympathy from both him and the Mayor but the elderly Cardinal Manning proved to be an effective reconciler. He was better qualified than the other committee members to understand both sides of the argument. His father had been a West India Company merchant, his brother a former dock chairman, and he therefore had a good knowledge of the docks from the management side. An estimated 40,000 of the strikers were Irish Catholics and the Cardinal was therefore well-acquainted with the deprivation around the docks. In the days that followed, the Cardinal, Mayor and Sydney Buxton had numerous meetings with the various employer and strike committees involved in the dispute.

On 7 September the strike committee set a new target of a raise from 1 October. A week later Manning persuaded Norwood to agree to a date of Monday, 4 November, although it would appear from contemporary reports that the directors of the Surrey Commercial Docks were less inclined to do so. Shipowners, who met together at the offices of the P&O Company in the City, were also far from accommodating an increase in berthing rates to pay for a rise in the dockers’ wages.

An extraordinary meeting then took place on 10 September. The Lord Mayor delegated the power of negotiation to the Cardinal. Despite his age and frailty, Manning travelled out to the East End for a joint meeting with the Wade’s Arms and Sayes Court strike committees. The Wade’s Arms pub was probably seen as inappropriate for the teetotal clergyman so they instead met in a nearby school classroom. It was a meeting that was to last long into the evening. The Cardinal asked Tillett to state the reasons for not accepting the 4 November compromise and in the following twenty minutes replied to each of those points. He implored that they recognize the damage being done to the nation and the suffering of the men’s families. Tillett was still not won over but Tom McCarthy recommended that the men accept the terms, backed by Tom Mann and Henry Champion. The Cardinal then gave an impassioned address, said to be the last great speech of his life, that brought tears to the eyes of some of the hardened dock labourers present. A vote was taken and the strike committee agreed by majority, although not unanimously, that the men would return to work providing that the penny per hour rise would come into effect from November.

The Joint Committee had insisted that their acceptance to the entire agreement was conditional upon all workers simultaneously returning to work and by then almost everyone was anxious to end the dispute. There were however still some further issues to be overcome regarding the specific demands of the lightermen, as well as the workers at the Surrey Docks. Further meetings were held during the morning of Saturday the 14th and these two latter groups agreed to return to work on the proviso that their points would thereafter go to arbitration.

Separate agreements could then be signed by each of the different groups of workers and directors: the London & India and Millwall Docks; Surrey Commercial Docks; independent wharves; and the lightermen. The end of the Great Dock Strike was finally announced on the afternoon of Saturday, 14 September, and work could therefore be resumed on Monday. Thus the dockers got their tanner, an extra two pence per hour overtime paid during the hours of six o’clock in the evening until six in the morning, and not less than two shillings each time they were called on.

In their final meeting on Saturday John Burns expressed, on behalf of the strikers, ‘hearty thanks’ to the Lord Mayor and his colleagues for their efforts to ‘construct a golden bridge whereby the dispute could be ended’. The Mayor responded by voicing his admiration for the conduct of the strikers throughout the previous weeks. As for his efforts, Cardinal Manning was modest, merely stating that what he had done was ‘for the love of his dear country and the love of all men joined together in the brotherhood of their commonwealth’.

On Sunday, 15 September, Burns and Champion led a triumphant mile-long procession from Canning Town to Hyde Park, cheered on along Commercial Road by their womenfolk. The final speeches of the campaign were made in the park by Tillett, Burns, McCarthy and Mann in which, ominously for the port managers, they predicted that the strike was only the first step for the labour movement. Special thanks were given to those in Australia who had supported the strikers.

The return to work was not the end of the matter. A specific part of the written undertakings with the Joint Committee was ‘to unreservedly undertake that all labourers who have been at work during the strike shall be unmolested and treated as fellow labourers by those who have been out on strike’. Yet a couple of days earlier Tillett had told the day’s mass meeting that when the men resumed work ‘a look from a docker’s eye was sufficient to paralyze a blackleg and they would be able to speak to those men when they [the strikers] returned to work.’ During the following days there were major disturbances at the West India and Royal Victoria docks. On several occasions blacklegs who had continued to work were attacked by strikers and had to be protected by the Metropolitan Police. Union members blamed the disturbances on ‘loafers’ who were disappointed the strike had ended. At the same time workers complained that dock officials were favouring strangers with work in preference to strikers, a charge denied by the Company.

The following year the London & India Docks Joint Committee provided workers with further improved employment conditions. Permanent staff were henceforth entitled to sick pay, annual holidays and pensions for those serving at least fifteen years. Casual workers were divided into two classes: ‘A’ labourers were employed by the week, given annual holidays and the right to join the permanent staff when vacancies occurred; ‘B’ labourers were provided with numbered tickets that gave precedence to available work according to seniority.

The Tea Operatives’ Union was renamed the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union of Great Britain & Ireland – generally known as simply the Dockers’ Union – with Tom Mann as its president and Ben Tillett its general secretary. Representing port workers around the country, the union’s membership increased to 57,000 in 1890. The dockers thereafter felt in a position of strength and began to take advantage of it, with frequent stoppages.

The strike had tarnished the reputation of the London & India Docks Joint Committee in the eyes of the public. Under pressure from shipping companies Norwood agreed from November 1890 to relinquish responsibility to shipowners for unloading their vessels at the Royal and Tilbury Docks, which did not particularly work in favour of the casual labourers who then had to deal with multiple employers. In fact the Joint Committee had handed on the poisoned chalice of dealing with militant labourers. Frustrated by the workforce, the shipping companies organized a mobile force of strike-breakers from other ports, with three ships able to transport them to wherever a strike broke out. It succeeded in breaking a dockers’ strike in the autumn of 1890. The ships were still in operation until 1911, after the dock companies had ceased to exist.

During the decade following the Great Dock Strike, workers on the south side of the river separated from the Dockers’ Union, forming the South Side Labour Protection League and thus, for a time, weakening the position of the original body. The National Amalgamated Sailors’ & Firemen’s Union lasted only six years before going into voluntary liquidation to avoid bankruptcy, due to expensive legal action. It reformed in 1894 as the National Sailors’ & Firemen’s Union and organized the first national seamen’s strike in 1911.

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