Labour History Review

Silvertown 1889: The East End's Great Forgotten Strike

Labour History Review (2014), 79, (3), 281–304.

Abstract

The 1889 strike at Silvertown was the first major defeat of the New Union movement. Yvonne Kapp's dozen pages in her biography of Eleanor Marx is the only account of the strike, so this article fills a gap. The strike was also noteworthy because of the role of the women workers, who, with Eleanor Marx's assistance, formed the first women's branch of the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers (NUG&GL). The strikers were not unionized before the strike and lack of preparation was one of the reasons it failed. The workers also faced an intransigent employer - probably the UK's largest electrical manufacturer. The strike's effectiveness also suffered through lack of solidarity from the older unions; because of Silvertown's remoteness; and because ‘public opinion’ had become hostile. Silver's refusal to negotiate was encouraged by other employers and by people in high places - many of whom were shareholders and in one case had family connections with a Board member. A ‘Silvertown Formula’ provided the template for the union-busting methods perfected by employers throughout the 1890s: refuse to negotiate, use the media to attack ‘outside agitators’, bring in rural scabs and house them on the premises, use the police and courts. Silvertown did, however, later become a bastion of industrial and political labour despite the defeat.

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Author details

Tully, John

Tully, John