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Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labor Movement

Foreword by John Callow
Introductory Comment by John Marriott
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: NYU Press,
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    In 1889, Samuel Winkworth Silver's rubber and electrical factory was the site of a massive worker revolt that upended the London industrial district which bore his name: Silvertown. Once referred to as the Abyss by Jack London, Silvertown was notorious for oppressive working conditions and the relentless grind of production suffered by its largely unorganized, unskilled workers. These workers, fed-up with their lot and long ignored by traditional craft unions, aligned themselves with the socialist-led New Unionism movement. Their ensuing strike paralyzed Silvertown for three months. The strike leaders - including Tom Mann, Ben Tillett, Eleanor Marx, and Will Thorne - and many workers viewed the trade union struggle as part of a bigger fight for a co-operative commonwealth. With this goal in mind, they shut down Silvertown and, in the process, helped to launch a more radical, modern labor movement. Historian and novelist John Tully, author of the monumental social history of the rubber industry The Devil's Milk, tells the story of the Silvertown strike in vivid prose. He rescues the uprising - overshadowed by other strikes during this period - from relative obscurity and argues for its significance to both the labor and socialist movements. And, perhaps most importantly, Tully presents the Silvertown Strike as a source of inspiration for today's workers, in London and around the world, who continue to struggle for better workplaces and the vision of a co-operative commonwealth.

    eISBN: 978-1-58367-436-9
    Subjects: Economics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-6)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. 7-12)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. 13-17)
    John Callow

    History, like politics or any other industry, is a fiercely contested ideological space. With evidence marshalled like pieces on the chess board, the framing and interpretation of the game can radically alter our perceptions of the past and serve to either extend or to inhibit our horizons and goals in the present. History defines our sense of community and shared cultural values; it shapes our common vocabulary and even serves to forge our ideas about—and our responses to—the nature of contemporary political and industrial struggles.

    History is, therefore, very much worth fighting for, and engaging with. John Tully’s...

  5. Introductory Comment
    (pp. 18-20)
    John Marriott

    The conditions for determined industrial struggle by an unskilled labor force were hardly propitious. In the 1880s, Silver’s India-Rubber, Gutta-Percha & Telegraph Company had emerged as a large manufacturer located by the Thames in the southern reaches of West Ham. The site was of significance, for the firm was part of an extraordinary concentration of industrial activity in the most advanced field of cable telegraphy which was fast revolutionizing the means of communication—the Internet of its day. Within four kilometers were to be found also other leading firms including W.T. Henley and Siemens Brothers, making this small area the hub...

  6. Preface
    (pp. 21-24)
  7. I. Prologue: Wednesday, 11 September 1889
    (pp. 25-30)

    Dawn broke over Silvertown on Wednesday 11 September 1889 with the promise of yet another sweltering day. There could be a strange beauty in an East End dawn. As a newspaperman later wrote of sunrise over Victoria and Albert Docks on a similar morning: “First a silvery light in the air, a chilly greyness, then a flush in the east, and with startling suddenness every mast, every funnel, every leaning crane is silhouetted jet-black against the pearl-coloured sky … Unreal … still … silent.”25This morning in 1889 was full of portent. The docks did not awaken as they had...

  8. II. Introduction to a Forgotten Struggle
    (pp. 31-44)

    This book tells the story of the great strike at Silvertown in the autumn and winter of 1889. The Epilogue includes some discussion of another strike by members of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in the same factory in 1897, and sketches in the growth of industrial and political labor in the district. The 1889 strike lasted three months, and that of 1897 lasted three months longer, although it involved only the skilled engineering workers in the plant. Today, both struggles have been comprehensively forgotten. With the exception of Yvonne Kapp in volume 2 of her admirable biography of Eleanor...

  9. III. Samuel Silver’s Palace of Industry
    (pp. 45-62)

    Until 1850, the district that became Silvertown was a vast and dismal stretch of marsh and tidal mudflats lying along the north bank of the River Thames, forming the southern section of the treeless Plaistow Marsh.111London—and the immense rotting pile of the older East End—lay to the west, over the River Lea. The district was almost uninhabited and consisted of “dead flats … marshes full of water rats, onions and greens, black ditches and foul drains.”112At the beginning of the nineteenth century there was only one permanent building on the marsh, an old alehouse with a...

  10. IV. Great Sacrifice, Great Barbarism
    (pp. 63-84)

    Samuel Silver’s cathedral of industry sat on the outer eastern edge of a colossal city. Victorian London was a city of great enterprise, industry, culture, and invention. As Roy Porter reminds us, “The nineteenth century acknowledged London as the centre of things: the creation in 1884 of the Greenwich Meridian, marked by a brass rail inlaid in concrete, crowned it as the prime meridian—zero degrees longitude—whence all the continents spread out east and west.”205Smoky, teeming, vibrant, and creative, it was the largest and richest capital city in history. Its great industries were fed by an expanding empire,...

  11. V. A Time of Hope
    (pp. 85-96)

    Nowhere were the harsh lessons of life more cruelly felt than in the East End and in Silvertown in particular. Life was vicious and short, but the rare Cockneys with a taste for Scripture may have found solace in the biblical injunction that “there shall be no reward for the evil man; the candle of the wicked shall be put out.”345The socialists among them would have realized, however, that no supernatural agency would help them. More prosaically, these marsh dwellers may have felt that the willo’-the-wisp, “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” was within their grasp....

  12. VI. “They Want My Life’s Blood”
    (pp. 97-110)

    Industrial disputes, as both Matthew Gray and the strikers’ leaders realized, are in part won by the side that better mobilizes “public opinion.” Press attitudes to the New Unionism varied in line with the political predilections of the paper’s owners. The twice-weeklyStratford Express, for example, was generally sympathetic to the strikers, but theEast London Observerwas firmly on the employers’ side, and theTimeswaxed vociferous in its opposition to the New Unions. Matthew Gray proved himself an industrial autocrat, but he was sensitive to his image in the newspapers. Middle- and upper-class readers formed the bulk of...

  13. VII. The Strike Gains Momentum
    (pp. 111-138)

    Employers faced with strikes often claim—and some perhaps even believe—that their workers have been led astray by outsiders with sinister agendas. Politicians and conservative pundits echo such claims. Samuel Silver informed shareholders:

    As regarded the strike at Silvertown … [the shareholders] had not far to seek for its exciting cause. The dock movement took place in the vicinity of their works, and affected a number of the labourers there. These men were instigated by the clamour of professional agitators and several irresponsible advisors.451

    The corollary of such claims is that otherwise “loyal” workers are coerced or tricked into...

  14. VIII. The Workers Disunited: Skilled versus Unskilled at Silvertown
    (pp. 139-156)

    The slogan “The workers, united, will never be defeated!” contains within it a great truth. Though there can never be any guarantees that a strike will be successful, the chances of victory are always improved when the workers make common cause. The great 1889 strike at Silvertown was undermined from the start by a lack of unity between skilled tradesmen and the so-called unskilled laborers. Britain’s oldest and wealthiest union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, refused all entreaties to call out its Silvertown members in solidarity with the NUG&GL. The ASE’s fitters,597along with members of the carpenters’ union and...

  15. IX. “There Is No Justice, Mercy or Compassion in the Plutocracy”
    (pp. 157-164)

    Until early November, the police had kept a low profile in Silvertown. Afterward, they began regularly turning up in force. There had been reports in the press of strikers roughing up blacklegs, and Matthew Gray was not at all happy about it. Nor was he any happier when pickets peacefully dissuaded would-be scabs or dupes from entering his premises to take their jobs. He was also irritated by what he regarded as a lamentable lack of enthusiasm by the police in restraining the pickets outside of his factory. In this, he was echoing the indignation of the dock moguls, who...

  16. X. November: Hunger and Cold
    (pp. 165-176)

    On 6 November 1889, the same day that the police first turned out in force in Silvertown, the strikers’ brass band performed outside the works, playing a dead march dead slow before parading through the streets via West Silvertown to repeat the performance outside the company’s head office in the distant City. Large “turn-outs” of both sexes and all ages stood bareheaded in the thin sunshine beside them,714noted theTimes.715They had no chance of shaming the directors, if that was their aim in doffing their caps. One also suspects that by this time many of the middleclass passersby...

  17. XI. The Great Strike Collapses
    (pp. 177-194)

    Wednesday, 27 November, dawned dark and bitterly cold. The temperature struggled to rise above freezing and the first snow of winter fell on Silvertown. When daylight came, it revealed a monochrome world: the whiteness of the fresh snow in startling contrast to the dark mud, the chimneys of brick and iron, the latticework of the dockside cranes, the immense stacks of coal, and the smoke-blackened walls of the factory hulking into the sky above the workers’ terraces. To the chagrin of the pickets shivering in their thin clothes, a stream of workers had made their way through the factory gates...

  18. XII. Epilogue
    (pp. 195-215)

    Eight years after the defeat of the Silvertown laborers’ strike, the factory was again hit by industrial action. Surprisingly, given the dubious role of the firm’s skilled artisans in the 1889 strike, the second wave of strikers were members of the fitters’ union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. The strike, which was part of a national confrontation between the Employers’ Federation of Engineering Associations and the ASE and other metal unions, was to last six months. By this time, the spirit of the New Unionism had spread widely, even into the hitherto conservative craft unions. The engineers’ strike was part...

  19. Abbreviations
    (pp. 216-216)
  20. Glossary
    (pp. 217-222)
  21. Bibliography
    (pp. 223-232)
  22. Notes
    (pp. 233-258)
  23. Index
    (pp. 259-267)