The Dock Strike of 1890

It was the same year dockers in London famously secured a pay rise with their ‘Docker’s Tanner’ that a Dockers’ Union branch was founded in Southampton. Membership steadily grew, as did the pressure on employers in Southampton docks to grant a pay rise to the men who worked there. The following year, in 1890, the majority of the main employers increased pay by 1d, but one company refused. The Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, which already generally paid less than other firms, rejected the dockers’ demands and so its men went back to work disappointed. The disappointment turned to fury when they discovered the same company who had rejected their demands, had in fact at the same time gone and met the demands of the firemen and seamen under their employ.

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Southampton Docks. South Western House can be seen in the distance.

Consequently, the aggrieved dockers called for a strike on the 7th of September 1890. Unlike the London strike, which had been peaceful, the one in Southampton was marred by violence and widespread disorder.

The Royal Mail Steam Packet Company and others locked the workers out and so suddenly thousands of men found themselves outside the docks, and most congregated on Canute Road, near South Western House. Here, the railway crosses the road and winds on into the docks, the same as it does today where it is still in use. This was the scene of a notable instance of disorder. A train was attempting to enter the docks, and as the gates were swung open, hundreds of men swarmed on to the tracks to block its path. Whilst some men checked the wagons for anything that might aid the blacklegs, those who work on during the strikes, two men stormed the engine and threw the driver out and on to the floor. Incidentally, one of these men was George Adams, the secretary of the Southampton Dockers’ Union, and my great x3 grandmother’s brother. When Adams came down from the train, it was all kicking off between the dockers and the police, with people pushing and heaving and shouting and trying to wrestle for control. Adams climbed up on to the gate. “Will you see the police treat your brothers like that?!”, he shouted down to the men. “No!”, they vociferously replied.

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Canute Road, scene of the violence 127 years ago. The railway crossing is up the road a bit and on the right, just before the South Western Hotel.

A train from Portsmouth arrived carrying 250 men of the West Yorkshire Regiment and 12 officers, who had been called in by the Mayor, James Bishop, in an attempt to restore peace. The police had found themselves overrun and massively outnumbered. Mr Bishop twice found himself reading the Riot Act to a mass of angry strikers, and it was agreed that with his consent the soldiers could fire upon the baying mob. A fire engine was bought up to Canute Road and water was fired upon the dockers instead.

The soldiers who used the fire engine soon found themselves the target of a heavy bombardment of stones, bricks, bottles, and other missiles. One officer had his nose broken by one such object, but was soon patched up by the battalion surgeon who had set up base at the nearby South Western Hotel.

The soldiers fixed bayonets, and marched down Canute Road towards the dockers. This caused the men to scatter in all directions. The slow bayonet charge meant the soldiers cleared Canute Road, allowing traffic to continue, and they then formed up in line at the top of Oxford Street, bayonets still pointing menacingly.

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Men of the West Yorkshire Regiment at Southampton, taking a break from bayonet charging striking dock workers. Drawing by W. D. Almond, 1890.

A section of dockers, infuriated by the Mayor calling in these “dogs of war”, as one man described them at the time, marched upon the shoe shop he owned on East Street and using bricks, stones, and bottles, they smashed every single pane of glass bar one.

It was not just the British Army that had been called in to help. The Royal Navy also found there was work to do. On the Thursday, a barge had been sent from the South-Western Company’s yard in Northam to the docks, carrying timber for repair work on other vessels. As it reached the docks, it was stopped by six boats, full of dock workers. Because of this practice, three gunboats plus a torpedo boat had been sent to stop it. HMS Invincible anchored in Southampton Water off Netley, and the torpedo boat patrolled there. When the dockers blocked the barge, the gunboat Mastiff was sent to the scene. Aboard was an officer and six men. They pulled up alongside the strikers, and the officer ordered them to cease. His request was met with abuse and derisive laughter. As a result, he ordered his six Blue Jackets to load their rifles and take aim. The strikers immediately backed down, and the gunboat escorted the barge in to the docks.

The strike was called off on Friday the 15th of September 1890, after a meeting at the Victoria Rooms on Portland Street. The companies in the docks had already threatened to take their business to other ports, and the Southampton branch of the Dockers’ Union had been informed by the London-based executives of the Union that they would not be making the strike official, and they would not therefore be releasing funds, or paying the striking dockers. This left the embattled Southampton men no choice but to go back to work, for times were hard and they all had families to feed.

William Sprow, who was effectively the leader of the dockers on strike, was then arrested for intimidating sailors. He had given speeches to the strikers at various sites, on Canute Road and at the Platform, urging them to fight on. Others were arrested for various things, one for assaulting a coal merchant, one for inciting a mob to set fire to buildings, and many for causing terror to the public. Sprow was sentenced to three months in prison for inciting a riot, and it appears he was the only man to serve jail time for his involvement. Nineteen other men who had either pleaded guilty or been convicted were let off with fines. As for my relative George Adams, he was charged with behaving in a riotous and tumultuous manner to the terror of the public, and he pleaded guilty.

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William Sprow talking at a meeting of striking dock workers at the Platform, Southampton. You can tell it is at the Platform because of the cannons over to the left. Drawing by W. D. Almond, 1890.

The decision from the London-based executives came as a shock to the Southampton branch of the Dockers’ Union. The meeting culminated in the chairman of the branch bursting in to tears. The men felt that the London-based executives had seriously betrayed them by dismissing their strike as unofficial and forcing them back to work despite not getting any kind of pay rise. This betrayal caused an irrevocable bitterness in the men, and it eventually caused the Southampton branch of the Dockers’ Union to fold. Some workers left Southampton for other ports where the basic pay was better. One development that came from the strike was the formation of a wider Trade Union Council in the town.

The strike may not have been as successful as the London one the previous year, but it did further highlight the fact that these men worked hard for little pay, and I see their strike as a desperate plea for a slightly better life. It’s hard to imagine British workers fighting against British soldiers on Canute Road in Southampton, it’s hard to imagine them marching down there with their bayonets out in front of them. The railway line there is extant, the gates are still in use. just as they were 127 years ago. Next time I find myself going down Canute Road, I’ll be imagining those violent scenes that marred the Southampton Dock strike of 1890.

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4 thoughts on “The Dock Strike of 1890

  1. Good day, I am doing a research project on the dock strike and I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of some good primary sources for the event. Thank you in advance!

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