John Tully’s history of the Silvertown strike reveals industrial and imperial connections, and the nature of the worker’s struggle against them at a crucial period, argues John Westmoreland
John Tully, Silvertown: The Lost Story Of A Strike That Shook London And Helped Launch The Modern Labour Movement (Lawrence & Wishart, 2014), 267pp
John Tully has done much more than write a book about a strike in this fascinating volume. He has managed to recreate a pivotal moment in British Labour history, reveal the connections between imperialism and industry, and the inherent barbarity of capitalism, and analyse the response of the British Labour movement.
The Silvertown strike took place at the works founded by Samuel Winkworth Silver in 1852. Originally the works made rain-proof clothing using rubber, but by 1889 it was the centre of one of the most important high-tech industries in Britain.
Silver’s was the company which pioneered laying underwater telegraph cables that spanned the world. The Silvertown complex covered some fifteen acres of land which had formerly been a marsh between the Victoria and Albert docks and the river Thames. At one end of the production chain was plant which provided the basic raw materials of gutta percha, tar, creosote, and copper and steel wire.
At the other end of the production process were the workshops that designed and made the machines needed to twist the wire into cables, and coat them with the casing needed to resist being laid on the ocean bed. Alongside the plant was a fleet of ocean going ships specially fitted out to lay the cable. Britain was a world leader in this field. Profits were high and shareholders included the highest in the land.
The British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury had shares, as did many senior figures in the Church, the army and the civil service. Silver’s had an importance beyond profit though. The cable laying contracts joined up the British Empire, and this project was considered to be crucially important after the near loss of India in the Great Rebellion of 1857.
The workers whose labour made the cables and connected the world to Britain reaped few benefits from their work. Working girls at the factory received around ten shillings a week. Labouring men twice that amount, and the skilled workers double that again. There was no fixed rate or established contract. Workers who worked 63 hours a week received no overtime. Girls who were idle due to machine failure lost pay until they resumed work. Labourers who worked on the yards and wharves had no shelter for meals or toilets.
Silver had built some terraced housing between the plant and the docks, but life was grim. Fumes from the plant, which used naphtha, benzene and sulphur, to say nothing of the soot and grime from steam power, were an everyday hazard. Lung disease was common, and there were numerous incidents of poisoning. The firm provided little in the way of health care, or for health and safety, with unguarded machines and the constant risk of fire. In 1917 there was an explosion in Silvertown that killed seventy and sent shock waves across the capital.
There is little doubt that the decision to take strike action was inspired by the victory of the dockers and the other two famous East End victories of the match girls at Bryant and May’s and the Gasworkers’ strike in Beckton. After initially conceding an increase in pay to the yardmen, the boss, Christian Gray, cancelled it when other workers petitioned for a similar rise. The workers wanted sixpence an hour like the dockers and pay was less than fivepence for most labourers.
The bosses, the government and the wider establishment were all of one voice in saying that the strike must be defeated. They sensed a rising working-class anger and wanted to put an end to it.
More than a glorious defeat
The strikers fought throughout the autumn of 1889 and were eventually starved back to work. The two crucial factors which defeated them were the sectional divisions in the workforce, and the lack of a national organisation to spread the strike and call in the solidarity needed, despite the efforts of Will Thorne and Eleanor Marx. Skilled engineers worked throughout and were not called out by their union the ASE. Outsourced work kept production going and when the French socialist Jules Guesde was unable to get workers at the Persan works in Paris to black their work for Silver’s, the writing was on the wall.
One might criticise Tully for not drawing out the lessons for the British Labour movement more fully. He does an excellent job of explaining the roles of a number of socialist and trade union leaders but does not consider the limitations of organisation enough in my view.
Nevertheless the strike was fought with great determination and acted as a beacon of hope to workers across Britain. Engels commented on the fighting spirit of the Silvertown strikers and prophesied that a victory for them would launch the Labour movement onto a new level of struggle. The fact that he was absolutely right is why the bosses were united in their desire to defeat it.
Tully’s account is very readable. He is able to connect the features of the strike to the wider historical period and uses quotations from great thinkers such as Marx to explain the barbarity of the system and the actions of its participants. He rescues from obscurity the working-class fighters who made their mark, such as the strike leader Fred Ling whose energy and willingness to learn inspired Eleanor Marx; and the landlady of the Railway Tavern, Mrs Cundy, who let the pub be used as a strike HQ. Tully does an excellent job of introducing the reader unfamiliar with the history of the East End to the workers’ leaders: Tom Mann, Will Thorne, and especially to Eleanor Marx.
‘Tussy’ Marx was present at all the strike meetings. She wrote articles and leaflets, spoke at mass meetings and on the picket lines, and leant an organising brain that inspired confidence. Tully’s brilliance as an historian is that he goes way beyond the narrowness of all too many strike histories and shows that the fight of East End women was as important as the issue of pay and conditions. It was the fight of a community against barbarism and it produced a clear class consciousness.
This book is well worth a read and offers a major contribution to the history of the British Labour movement. The reader will get an insight into the nature of capitalism at both a theoretical and factory level. It shows capitalist ingenuity locked into a competitive system that denies basic humanity to the producers.
It also looks at the strengths and weaknesses of our side. The fighting capacity of workers, their solidarity and openness to ideas on the one hand; and the sectional divisions and bureaucratic indifference that stifles the movement on the other.
John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.