Silvertown and partisan history

John Tully

There is a concept in biology called “punctuated equilibrium”: organisms can display little discernible change over long periods of time before sudden, sharp, and profound changes. Without wishing to give credence to teleological or determinist views, it does seem that human history is profoundly dialectical.  Sharp change that bewilders an apologist for the status quo can inspire and give hope to those of us who believe that a better world is possible. We live in interesting but depressing times today.[1] Neoliberal ideas are hegemonic. The old collectivist values of the labour movement have been submerged in a tide of market fundamentalism, summed up in Margaret Thatcher’s claim that “there is no such thing as society; there are only individuals and families”. When I began researching for my Silvertown book[2], it became apparent to me that a similar flood tide to that of neoliberalism had washed over much of 19th century Britain. This portrayed the status quo as normal, natural and inevitable, but the equilibrium was punctuated in the last decades of the century.

This is not to say that Britain—or the world—had been a static place. Social, economic and technological change had occurred at breakneck speed from the inception of the Industrial Revolution. “All that is solid melts into air”, wrote Marx and Engels in 1848, a year of revolutions across much of Europe. Capitalism was transforming the world in ways and to an extent never before seen in human history. And the engine room of the great transformation was Great Britain.

The human cost of the transformation was appalling. The average life expectancy of the workers in Silvertown in the last decades of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th was 35 years. Earlier, it was even lower. Whole populations were uprooted and forced to earn their living in the “dark satanic mills” of jerry-built cities. Silvertown, which lay across the River Lea in what was called “London Over the Border”, formed the southern part of the County Borough of West Ham, which had experienced perhaps faster growth than any other district in the British Isles. This was the biggest heavy industrial area in southern England and a far cry from the small workshops that characterised the older, inner East End. It was linked to the world by the district’s vast V & A docks. Samuel Silver’s India-Rubber, Gutta-percha[3] & Telegraph Works was one of the largest employers and was, moreover, the largest firm in an industry strategically important for the empire, and at the cutting edge of the new electrical revolution. Silver’s was also key to the maintenance and defence of the British Empire, which relied on the firm’s insulated submarine cables for “real-time” communication.

The social conditions of 19th century Britain were objectively ripe for class war. And yet, despite the best efforts of generations of union activists, the overwhelming majority of Britain’s workers remained unorganised and outside of the existing trade unions. By the mid-19th century, the early hopes of the Chartists and the activists of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union had faded away. Marx and Engels were obscure German immigrants devoid of influence outside of the tiniest circles. With a couple of exceptions, the existing trade unions were narrow organisations which combined the functions of friendly societies with protection of the craft privileges of their members. They were indifferent or even hostile to the idea of organising the great masses of unskilled and semi-skilled workers into unions. Moreover, most of the country’s skilled workers remained unorganised. Neither women nor the great majority of skilled workers who had learned their trades outside of the apprenticeship route could join. Politically, the craft unions leaned to the Liberal Party, or even the Tories, and were hostile to the idea of an independent working class party and socialist ideas. In the shipyards, there was even a system of what Eric Hobsbawm has called “co-exploitation”; boilermakers on piece rates had a vested interest in forcing maximum production from their labourers, who were on hourly hire. At Silvertown, the divide between the labour aristocracy of the skilled tradesmen and the labourers was to have tragic consequences.

The economic and social system of 19th century Britain was explained and justified as inevitable, immutable, and even necessary. To try to change it was foolish, even wicked. The well-known Anglican hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” included the claim “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate/God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate”. The philosophically inclined among the defenders of the status quo might have invoked Leibniz’s claim that we live in the “best of all possible worlds” (a claim lampooned by Voltaire in Candide). The now almost forgotten Herbert Spencer was the foremost philosopher of the late Victorian Age. In his widely supported view, human society ran according to the law of the “survival of the fittest”. The strong deserved their inordinate wealth at the apex of the social pile and any attempt to ameliorate the sufferings of the poor was unnatural and ran counter to Social Darwinist “truth”. The prevailing economic orthodoxy, it followed, was laissez-faire—the untrammelled rule of the market, which sounds very familiar to our ears today.

Not surprisingly, revolutionaries and even mild reformers despaired of change ever happening. Even Frederick Engels was pessimistic. In April 1888, he wrote to the novelist Margaret Harkness that “nowhere in the civilized world are the working people less actively resistant, more passively submitting to fate, more hébétés than in the East End of London”.

And yet, change was fermenting away under the surface. In 1888 and 1889, a series of large strikes of unorganised, unskilled and semi-skilled workers erupted across the East End. The first “New Union” strike exploded among the downtrodden, largely female operatives in the Bryant & May match factory in Bow. Triply oppressed as workers and women of mainly Irish birth or extraction, working in often horrible conditions, they confounded the bosses and ignored the milksop Fabians who advised them against striking and to put their faith in reports to parliament. The women won their strike and formed a permanent trade union.

The following year, another major strike erupted at the massive Beckton gasworks on the fringes of the East End. Led by a socialist firebrand called Will Thorne, the stokers won an impressive victory, including a huge reduction in hours without loss of pay. As a result of the Beckton victory, Thorne was able to launch the National Union of Gasworkers & General Labourers (NUG&GL). This was a general labour union open to all comers regardless of level of skill or gender; a radical departure from the craft union model. (It is the parent of today’s General, Municipal, Boilermakers & Allied Trades Union, which is one of Britain’s largest unions.)

No sooner had the Beckton stokers returned to work than a massive strike took place on the London Docks. Again, thanks in part to generous strike funds sent by Australian unionists and even middle class supporters, the strikers won their dispute for the famous “docker’s tanner” (sixpence an hour). Engels was ecstatic. The most marginalised of the London proletariat had challenged the shipowners and won. And once again, they succeeded in creating a permanent union; the Transport & General Workers Union. (The T&G still exists today as Unite, Britain’s largest union.)

It appeared, as the dockers’ pickets paralysed the waterfront, that the new general labour unions were on an unstoppable roll. The impossible had been achieved and the lessons were not lost on other oppressed workers in the teeming streets of London’s East End. In the heady closing days of the Dock Strike, the 3000 unskilled and semi-skilled workers at Silver’s huge Silvertown factory came out on strike for better wages and conditions.

Silver’s was a non-union shop; indeed the mass of the factory’s workers had never been members of a trade union. Nobody had ever invited them to join and indeed the rules of the craft unions forbade them from membership. About half of the skilled tradesmen inside the plant were members of the craft unions; in particular the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, the ASE, which was at the time the largest and wealthiest of the British unions. The ASE, however, was to play no part in the dispute and was resolute in its refusal not to back the strikers.[4]

The strikers were led by a stoker called Fred Ling, who turned to Will Thorne’s newly-formed NUG& GL for support, and the union quickly signed up the majority of the plant’s unskilled workers.[5] Ling, significantly, was a socialist, or he became one during the strike. He was not alone in his beliefs. As Engels proudly recorded, the Beckton and Dock strikes had been led by a group of militant socialists, members of the Britain’s first avowedly Marxist party, the Social Democratic Federation. They included Ben Tillett, John Burns, Will Thorne, Tom Mann, and Eleanor Marx, the feisty daughter of Karl Marx. If you like, they acted as the yeast in the flour of discontent, although the Establishment cast them as sinister agitators leading the workers by the nose.

The Silvertown strikers quickly adopted the forms of struggle pioneered in the earlier East End strikes; namely mass picketing, mass meetings and parades, with the red flag billowing over the streets of the district. Their newly formed union had little money, but strike activists tramped the streets of East London to raise strike funds. Indeed some young women among them walked so far that they wore out their boots.

And here we come to another radical development of the New Unions. There were growing numbers of women in the big outer East End factories, including as we have seen, in Bryant & May’s match factory. Around thirteen per cent of Silver’s employees were women, and as will come as no surprise, their wages and conditions were markedly inferior to those of the men, even for identical work. Will Thorne himself proposed to the men at a mass meeting in Canning Town to allow women to join the union and his motion was carried unanimously. Henceforth, the NUG&GL would be a general labour union of both men and women. Eleanor Marx sat on its central executive and she organised a women’s branch in Silvertown. Not surprisingly, the match factory union voted shortly afterwards to amalgamate with the general union. Let us put this in historical context by noting that none of the existing craft unions allowed women to join. Indeed the Australian branch of the engineering union excluded women until 1944.

The first big East End strikes and the formation of the New Unions had caught the bosses, the government and the forces of the state flat-footed. If Engels had not foreseen the sudden upsurge, neither had they. They trembled at an unfolding nightmare: an avalanche of wages demands and the spread of militant, class struggle general labour unions led by socialists who made no bones about wanting to organise the working class politically as well as industrially. At Silvertown, the employers, with the backing of the government, drew a line in, if not the sand, in the Thames mud; the union plague had to be stopped. And in Silver’s managing director, Matthew Gray, they had the man resolute, intelligent, and brutal enough to do it. Gray appears to have been a fitter who rose from the ranks. As many trade unionists have ruefully observed, such “class traitors” make the most intransigent employers! From the very beginning, Gray refused to negotiate with or recognise the union. In fact, he cobbled together what I have called the Silvertown Formula:[6] a strike-breaking package which became a model for capitalists facing down unionists across the British Isles. The Formula included the following ingredients:

  • A total refusal to negotiate, recognise the union or accept outside offers of conciliation
  • Use of the press to convince middle class public opinion – which had been surprisingly sympathetic to the dockers – that the strikers were well-paid and led astray by sinister outside agitators
  • Use of the police to break picket lines and generally intimidate the workers
  • Relentless use of the courts against strikers
  • The importation of scabs from country areas and billeting them inside the plant.

Finally, the firm received full support and encouragement from employers’ organisations and from the government, many of whose members were shareholders in the company. (These included the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury.) Another problem was the refusal of the craft unions to withdraw their members in sympathy.

There is a tendency to view the events from 1889 as a gradual process which resulted in the consolidation of the unions and their creation of the Labour Party. Partly this is due to the distortions of hindsight, but more importantly it stems from the ideology of gradualism. In fact, the 1890s were a period of economic depression and bitter class warfare, in which the employers almost succeeded in crushing militant trade unionism. The pivot point for class war was the Silvertown struggle, in which the union was defeated after a bitter three-month strike. The strikers were starved back to work, which, if not Matthew Gray’s original intention, quickly became so. The strike activists were blacklisted and some of them never worked again. The very existence of the Silvertown branch of the NUG&GL, for instance, was in doubt for much of the decade. And yet, as the strike committee realized, their struggle was “an earnest for the future”. And so it was, for West Ham became the birthplace of the political labour movement and a union bastion. As is well-known, in the years after the strike, West Ham elected the first socialist MP, Keir Hardie, and the first socialist borough council. The Silvertown struggle, however, was almost forgotten; hence my book.

Not surprisingly, my approach has irked some historians. In my preface to Silvertown, I record that “Conservatives have attacked some of my previous work as being partisan”.  In fact I am totally unapologetic about it! I always knew from my early childhood that society was rent by huge divides between rich and poor, between the powerful and the powerless. Born in a coal mining village—my grandmother the local school cleaner, my grandfather a merchant seaman, my mother a “factory girl” and my father a fitter who became a convenor of shop stewards—I also knew that just about anything working class people had, they had won through combination and struggle.

Later, I came to understand that that the social differences were not accidental or random, but that they flowed from the structures and imperatives of capitalism. There were, as Marx argued, two great classes in capitalist society—workers and capitalists—and society, government and the state were ordered in the interests of the latter. Indubitably, the relationship between “economic base” and “superstructure” is seldom crudely mechanical. As Gramsci argued in his theory of “cultural hegemony”, it is more complex and nuanced than that. The bourgeoisie does not rule by force alone; it does so by inculcating its ideas and values—its ideology—into the population at large. It follows, then, as the GMB’s John Callow argues in his preface to Silvertown that “History, like politics…is a fiercely contested ideological space”. Historians who claim to be impartial and “value free” are simply not to be trusted—or simple.

My school history teacher, whom I’ll call Old Harry, would be shocked by my Silvertown book and by my frank admission that it is partisan. For him, as for Thomas Carlyle, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”. In a 19th century British History class, Harry instructed us to write not about social conditions, but to focus on the “Great Men” of the Victorian era. The word imperialism never sullied his lips, the unwashed masses were not worthy of comment, and when trade unions and socialism had to mentioned—as in the Taff Vale judgement—a faint moue of distaste flickered across his lips. To the best of my knowledge, Old Harry never published a sentence, but he was a dedicated product of the orthodox school of historiography and he was quite sure that his role was to inculcate its ideas into our heads. History was a discipline which viewed historical development strictly “from above”, it was the biography of great men such as Gladstone and Disraeli—and perhaps of one great woman by the name of Victoria. If he had heard of Mary Wollstonecraft or Eleanor Marx he never mentioned them.

Left to orthodox historians like Harry, labour history—and perhaps even broader social history—may never have been born. Labour history has necessarily been partisan. As the great British historian Eric Hobsbawm put it, the partisan approach was a necessary tin opener with which to open a can of worms. I can give a very clear example of this. In 1993, Geoffrey Blainey—whom you may recall as John Howard’s favourite historian and the doyen of the “anti-black armband” school—published a history of the Pacific Dunlop rubber company called Jumping Over The Wheel. It is an elegantly written tract, as you might expect, but for me its most interesting feature is what it doesn’t discuss. In its 336 pages, it mentions the rubber workers’ union once, and that in a smug, patronising way. I’m reminded of the title of Richard Flanagan’s book, The Sound of One Hand Clapping; something massively important is missing in Blainey’s book. Read it, and you learn nothing of the lives and struggles of the firm’s workers, among them the women and their union at Dunlop’s Sydney Rubber Works who were among the unsung pioneers of the struggle for equal pay.[7]

In recent times, labour history has gone somewhat into decline. It is old hat, we are told. It is only about white male workers. Other social categories—gender, race and ethnicity are more important, or so we are told. And some contemporary labour historians have retreated into a vapid and soulless “value-free” approach. To me, all of this is a reflection of the spirit of the age—of the rampant domination of the neoliberal ideology of the ruling class. Ironically, it is happening at a time when the working class, on a world scale, has never been larger than it is today, a point made eloquently in Terry Eagleton’s book Why Marx Was Right. Class might be a dirty word today, but it is still the elephant in the sociological room. As the late Laurie Aarons argued in his book Casino Oz: Winner and Losers in Global Capitalism, it is pretty poor sociology to categorise white collar and other service workers as middle class rather than as wage workers. Labour history, too, need not be just about white males and it is a straw man argument to claim it is. And now, more than ever, with the gap between rich and poor yawning ever wider, at a time when the labour movement is a shadow of what it was, labour history has an important role in the fight against forgetting—such as in the case of the Silvertown strike.

And that means being partisan, taking a stance; which is not to say that we should twist, distort or ignore inconvenient facts, or caricature the ideas and behaviour of those with whom we disagree. Scholarship, as Hobsbawm reminds us, is distinct from propaganda, although there is a place for both. Let me finish with a quote from Gramsci’s pamphlet, “The City of the Future”:

I hate the indifferent. I believe that living means taking sides. Those who really live cannot help being a citizen and a partisan. Indifference and apathy are parasitism, perversion, not life. That is why I hate the indifferent. The indifference is the deadweight of history.


[1] Perhaps I should qualify that in the light of Syriza’s recent victory in Greece; the upsurge of support for Podemos in Spain; the rout of the IS fundamentalists by the Kurds at Kobane; and the outcomes of the Queensland and Victorian state elections.

[2] John Tully, Silvertown: the lost story of a strike that shook London and helped launch the modern labor movement (New York and London: Monthly Review Press and Lawrence & Wishart, 2014).

[3] Gutta-percha is a natural plastic derived from the latex of certain rain forest trees in Southeast Asia. It is a much better insulator than hevea rubber and was used in particular for submarine cables before replacement by synthetic plastics. For a discussion of these matters see my article “A Victorian Ecological Disaster: Imperialism, the Telegraph, and Gutta-Percha”, Journal of World History, Volume 20, Number 4 (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, December 2009), 559-579.

[4] The ASE was the forerunner of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), which was the parent of the Australian union of the same name. Ironically, a disproportionate number of the New Union leaders were skilled workers. John Burns and Tom Mann, for instance, were ASE members.

[5] Little industrial work is actually unskilled and my use of the term follows the usage of the time to differentiate between craft and other work.

[6] After the later Mohawk Valley Formula in the US.

[7] For a discussion of those struggles see my “’Nothing But Rebels’: Union Sisters at the Sydney Rubber Works, 1918-1942”, Labour History : A Journal of Labour and Social History, Number 103 (Sydney: Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, November 2012), 59-82.