Tag Archives: London docks

Walter Besant on East London

Large and heavy as this old hardback was, it was also a quick read and a most infuriating one (though I enjoyed the illustrations a great deal). I can see why Rector J.G. Birch of St Anne’s Limehouse felt impelled to pen a book about his own neighbourhood in response to this and the vileness of Thomas Burke. It is, of course, also full of great quotes to take issue with and contrast to other works on the East End, so I’ve collected the ones that struck me most here as signposts, to return to in future and tear apart properly.

Scan 18

Walter Besant opens with this broad description of what East London is — fairly innocuous to start with:

…it is not a city by organisation; it is a collection of overgrown villages lying side by side. It had, until this year (1900), no center, no heart, no representative body, no mayor, no aldermen, no council, no wards; it has not inherited Folk’s Mote, Hustings, or Ward Mote; it has therefore no public buildings of its own. (8)

there are no hotels, he writes: ‘Actually, no hotels!’ (9) That is, in fact, quite interesting when you think about how people move from town to town looking for work, perhaps visiting family. I wonder if he discounts lodging houses here, it seems unlikely to me that this should be true. For further investigation.

This crowded area, this multitude of small houses, this aggregation of mean streets–these things are the expression and the consequence of an expansion of industries during the last seventy years on a very large and unexpected scale; East London suddenly sprang into existence because it was unexpectedly wanted. (9-10)

In this, it seems to me perhaps he has in mind Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets, it certainly chimes with both his title and description. I initially felt quite charitable towards Besant running the People’s Palace, a most splendid name for an institution I thought, I need to know more! I have not yet found out much more. But Morrison worked under Besant on its journal, which makes the below even more curious and insulting:

Some twelve years ago I was the editor of a weekly sheet called the “People’s Palace Journal.” In that capacity I endeavoured to encourage literary effort, in the hope of lighting on some unknown and latent genius…I discovered, to my amazement, that, among all the thousands of these young people, lads and girls, there was not discoverable the least rudimentary indication of any literary power whatsoever. (13-14)

I suppose he is excluding Morrison himself from this description but Morrison did come from these streets himself and his writing is impressive I think. I have a novel by Besant on my list to read still, but I am not impressed with his style and doubt he holds any capacity to judge working class voices. But the why of that is demonstrated through this series of quotes really.  Back to monotony:

What appearance does it present to the visitor? There is, again, in this respect as well, no other city in the world in the least like East London for the unparalleled magnitude of its meanness and its monotony. It contains about five hundred miles of streets, perhaps more…

Scan 19

From the point of view of the visitor:

The Unlovely City, he calls it [the traveller], the City of Dreadful Monotony! Well, in one sense it is all that the casual traveler understands, yet that is only the shallow, hasty view. Let me try to show that it is a city full of human passions and emotions, human hopes and fears, love and the joys of love… (16)

In thinking about topophilia, the impact of space on human beings and how they shape and are shaped by it I am curiously struck by the idea of the Unlovely City, though not in the sense that Besant discusses it as despite this seeming defense of its residents and their unique passions — it is patronising and soon breaks down when they start demanding too much. Still, most of the illustrations seem to show what to my mind is a fairly liveable city, and I love the great masts that must have always been in the background:

Scan 26

But perhaps its principal illustrator, Joesph Pennell, just found Limehouse picturesque and fun to draw unlike much of the rest. Brook St was a centre of life and community in Limehouse and no longer exists:

Scan 27

I did like the chapter, playing on the Unlovely City, titled ‘The City of Many Crafts’ — and he goes on to list them from the days there was still work here. Silk trade, bootmaking, factories, furniture and bootmaking, fur and leather dressing…all of them now gone. they brought vitality that the City of London lacked, as people lived near where they worked, the streets did not clear on weekends but remained full of life. ‘it is a city of the working-classes’ he writes. (28)

Scan 22

There is a colourful passage on Billingsgate Fishwomen, which makes me admire them in a way slightly distinct to Walter Besant’s intention I think, especially as I hate descriptions of  labour as picturesque. I also hate this mawkish sentimentality over what is gone as though it’s somehow a natural process, I suspect made more picturesque through existing only in memory rather than as living breathing cursing women:

They were as strong, also, physically, as men, even of their own class; they could wrestle and throw most men; if a visitor offended one of them she ducked him in the river; they all smoked pipes like men, and they drank rum and beer like men; they were a picturesque part of the market…Alas! the market knows them no more. … we all have our little day; she has enjoyed her’s, and it is all over and past. (55)

He is, however,  as Birch noted, mostly insulting to those along the river:

…the people left to themselves, grew year by year more lawless, more ignorant, more drunken, more savage…The whole of the riverside population, including not only the bargemen and porters, but the people ashore, the dealers in drink, the shopkeepers, the dealers in marine stores, were joined and banded together in an organized system of plunder and robbery. (48)

This illustration shows Limehouse as it perhaps once was, one of its so-called thieving lazy shiftless workers in the foreground (though possibly it’s just that he hasn’t eaten for a few days, though he does look well fed):

Scan 25

Walter Besant talks approvingly about the increased control of the docks, fences, body searches:

I am sorry that we have no record of the popular feeling on the riverside when it became at last understood that there was no longer any hope, that honesty had actually become compulsory…For the first time these poor injured people felt the true curse of labor. (52)

Could anything make me first laugh and then rage more than this sentence? There is so much documentation (see Harkness or Stafford) of how terrible dock work was, how it was work of last resort with its uncertain hours, its desperate daily competition for positions and need for constant readiness with starvation when you failed to obtain a place, its backbreaking work. It was widely understood to be the work that killed you the fastest.

Scan 21

That sentence is really unforgiveable. His further thoughts on factory girls are almost as bad:

They work from early morning till welcome evening. The music of this murmur, rightly understood, is like the soft and distant singing of a hymn of praise. For the curse of labor has been misunderstood; without work man would be even as the beasts of the field. It is the necessity of work that makes him human… (115)

This was obviously written by a man who had not himself worked in a factory of the time, suffered phossy jaw or died early from lungs full of lint or lost a limb loading ships. It also means he does not understand one of the the other true curses of labour beyond early illness, injury and death: Bosses:

Meantime, the factory people are as careful about their girls as can be expected. They insist on their making a respectable appearance and wearing a hat….There is a good deal of paternal kindliness in the London employer…(141)

They didn’t give them the hats sadly, and this sentence is not mitigated by being followed by a patronising sentence on strikes, even given that it is a nod to the fabulous matchwomen’s strike.  There follows more on the lads, the problems they face since their working hours have been reduced from 12 hours and bedtime at dark, giving them too much time on their hands.

…he has four hours, perhaps five, to get through every evening…What is that boy to do?

If lucky they join one of the boys’ clubs, ‘work of their restlessness and get rid of the devil in the gymnasium with the boxing gloves…they become infected with some of the upper-class ideals, especially as regards honor and honesty, purity and temperence… (172)

That’s quite vomitous as well. I’m trying to think of novels or description of virtuous young male aristocrats who do not drink, sleep around, gamble or dock owners and merchants who are not ruthless and mercenary…I am at a loss. But I like the verb ‘infected’ in this sentence.

I laughed at his horror that these young men love the penny dreadfuls, imagine! Earlier he stated they didn’t read at all, so clearly he classes this literature as below contempt.

There is an archaic and awkward chapter on the ‘Alien’ — it starts with the huguenots, contains some uncomfortable words on the Jews.

Scan 30 Scan 31

He visits an opium den and is disappointed by a fair sized room ‘neither dreadful nor horrible’. (206) He writes

There are small colonies and settlements of other foreigners. Anarchists make little clubs where murders are hatched, especially murders of foreign sovereigns… (206)

That made me laugh as well…

There is a chapter on the Houseless — the great throng of them. He mentions the new LCC development in Bethnal Green — describes 5000 people turned out of their homes, moving to other districts already overcrowded and most unable to return.

He also has a curious chapter on ‘the Submerged’ — like the ‘Unlovely City’ this category is one that I find actually incredibly useful, even if only for the thoughts it provokes. It essentially describes those who have fallen in life and stay down at the bottom listless, unable to lift themselves.

Not the tramp, nor the sturdy rogue, nor the professional criminal, nor the vile wretches who live by the vilest trades, may be numbered among the submerged. They fall noiselessly from their place of honor, they live noiselessly in their place of dishonor; they might perhaps be brought back to work, but the cases of recovery must be very few in proportion, because the causes which dragged them down are those which prevent them from being dragged up (250).

Scan 29

This describes those suffering addiction, mental illness, what we would now call ptsd…there are so many different reasons people end up surviving on the streets.

There is quite a lovely illustration of a women’s workhouse which captures a little more of the gloom and the discomfort and the despair that Mary Higgs‘ more clinical descriptions couldn’t quite manage:

Scan 34

Besant finishes with a few chapters on the East End’s old villages now suburbs, Hackney and more…I might have filled posts on those if I knew them better but have left them to one side. If I end up finding a new flat somewhere out there perhaps I will return to it. There is a cluster of interesting things about Ratcliff however, and a long description of where I now work, so that will fill a new post at some point.

Scan 33




Ann Stafford: A Match to Fire the Thames

In those last years of the 1800s it really did seem as if the Thames might catch fire. Ann Stafford, author of this book, wouldn’t have been entirely pleased perhaps, she consistently supports the cautious Ben Tillett as against the socialist dream of general strike and revolution. But this is a very readable story of the series of labour agitations (match girls, gasworkers and finally the dockers’ strike) that weaves together reporting from the time and is written much in the same style.

A telling, if poetic, sentence that shows Stafford’s distance from the class she is describing:

The Cholera epidemic of 1866 had startled West London into a shuddering awareness of her insanitary neighbour, East London, which coiled around her flank with its mass of ill-housed, half-starving people, breeding pestilence, many of them vicious and criminal, all dangerous, surely, to society (31).

There are lots of fascinating asides that I have made fairly listy for better or for worse…but it is similar in a way to the structure of the book, that flits around backgrounds before entering into the narrative of the strike itself. It remembers pubs that are no more, like the Blue Posts, which had ‘long been a favourite meeting places of the stevedores. They were welcome: big, well-muscled men with plenty of money to spend, you wouldn’t catch them sitting down four to a pint pot, the way the underpaid and undernourished dockers did’ (17).

Four to a pint pot, and their missus starving no doubt.

Here is more on the history of the Blue Posts:

In the eighteenth century the Blue Posts Tavern stood on the south side of Limehouse Causeway at its junction with Pennyfields and Back Lane. Soon after the West India Dock Road had been formed the establishment moved to a new building on the north-east side of that road, south of Back Lane. (fn. 6) The Blue Posts public house (No. 73) was a three-storey brick building of three bays. It was extended to the south-east (No. 75) in 1876 with a two-storey block giving a long street frontage. The Blue Posts, with the Railway Tavern and Jamaica Tavern, was well placed to serve labourers and others passing to and from the West India Docks. Charles W. Brown, son of the famous Charlie Brown (see below), displayed half of his father’s curio collection at the Blue Posts in the 1930s.

The Wade’s Arms is the pub most central to this story, however, at 15 Jeremiah Street, E14 (now partly Rigden Street), but it was demolished in 1944.

Almost every physical remnant of this period of labour history is gone.

Stafford doesn’t care about or question the thread of Empire that runs through this, the efforts to claim the rewards of the conquerors for the working men of the conquering race. There is, to me, a fairly incredible comparison between the dockers fighting for wages and the British soldiers under siege at Lucknow during the Indian uprising of 1857, John Burns in a rousing speech intertwined Empire with the struggle of labour:

I tell you, lads, we will no more surrender than the men in Lucknow surrendered. Now these men fought for a glory which was effervescent and ephemeral; but they nobly did their duty and stood up against a storm of shot and shell, disease and want, and all the miseries of that long siege. You, men, have to hold another citadel today. We are defending our Lucknow–the Lucknow of Labour. Too long have you been cooped up in the prison houses of poverty, suffering, privation and disease, and all the hardships of your lot. But courage! Relief is at hand. As our garrison in Lucknow, straining their eyes towards the horizon, saw the silver sheen of the bayonets of the relieving army, so from this parapet, I too see on the horizon a silver gleam–not the gleam of bayonets to be imbrued in the blood of a brother, but the silver sheen of the full round orb of the docker’s tanner. (quoted p 27)

And then there is this:

“I believe,” said Will Thorne, “that nowhere in the world have white men had to endure such terrible conditions as those under which the dockers work.” (40)

White men were not the only men to work the docks, but others don’t enter this story at all except in a single cringeworthy reference to all men pulling together in the very first pages. But there is a over and over that strong sense that dock work was the lowest possible work of all, these workers the lowest of all workers: “To have worked at the docks is sufficient to damn a man for any other work,” remarked Beatrice Webb (36). Margaret Harkness in her fictional account of the fall of a young man from the country, says the same — there is little to no hope of being fit for anything else after working there with its brutal conditions and starvation wages and odd hours.

All but Ben Tillett believed it impossible to organise them until they proved otherwise.

There’s some background on the dock companies —  4 dock companies ran 7 docks, and they were famously incompetent apparently — Victoria & Albert Dock at Tilbury, The East India and West India Docks,  the London Dock, St Katharine’s Dock, the Millwall Dock, and the Surrey Commercial Dock. They competed with other docks and other ports — primarily Liverpool and Southampton, especially after opening of the Suez Canal. Revenue at East &West India Docks fell from 4 1/2 percent in 1884 to 0 in 1887, London & St Katharine stood at 1 percent in 1888. This in spite of men fighting each other at their gates for the lowest possible wages, working only the hours needed and turned away for the rest. There is a great post on the ‘call-on’ here.

Stafford describes some of the docker’s living quarters, no different perhaps, from the rookeries of Saffron Hill and Bethnal Green, but surely much colder, damper being right alongside the river:

Only the poorest of the dockers, the casual laborers, lived near their work, in the narrow dark streets which ran between the river and Commercial Road. Some of the older houses tottering on the river bank had degenerated and were now let off room by room; they were often known as ‘rookeries,’ for not only did each room contain a family much too big for it, but at night the vary stairs served as perches for men and women who could not afford a room at all (39).

I enjoyed the book’s brief bios of the working class heroes of the strike — Will Crooks, born in Shirbut Street, Poplar — now the site of the Will Crooks Maternity and Child Welfare Crisis. He would speak just outside East India Dock gate every Sunday morning:

He did not only talk about their grievances–a subject of which they never tired–he started them thinking about all the good things that they wanted, public libraries, technical institutes, even a tunnel under the Thames…Crooks’ College, Poplar people called these meetings, and Crooks’ College went on Sunday after Sunday, year after year, almost without interruption, even when Will was elected to the London County Council, served on the Board of Guardians, became Mayor of Poplar, and in 1903 was returned to Parliament as Labour M.P. for Woolwich (47-48).

Ben Tillett (more about him in further posts, this book takes his side in almost all things but he is a complex man at best — they were all complex in the ways that race and class and gender intersected, often for the worst, in the work and speeches of everyone named here). Will Thorne — ‘In 1881, when times were difficult in Birmingham, he walked to London, and luckily for him he got a job at once at the Old Kent Road Gas Works…’ (51). John Burns. Annie Besant — the only woman to receive her own few pages of biography in here. But the best fragment is about Beatrice Webb, who shared the speaker’s platform at one event in Canning Town:

He [Tillett] says: “…neither I nor any of the other people on the platform appeared to have made a very satisfactory impression on our rather aristocratically prejudiced visitor. She was young, clever, much petted by the intellectuals of the older generation, undoubtedly sincere, anxious to help, but somewhat condescending.” On the other he appeared to her as “undoubtedly sincere, but rather dull.” (57)

There comes a mention of Eleanor Marx in passing,

But Mrs. Aveling–the daughter of Karl Marx–was a sad, foreign looking lady, unhappily married, so they said, to the professor who sometimes came down to speak on socialism at open air meetings (18).

She, and the beautiful wife of Mr Burns are mentioned a handful of times as running the union accounts, but they have little further role in this story. There is a brief mention of Clementina Black — my god, Miss Clementina Black! An amazing woman, one I must read of further. But there is a long chapter on the Match Girls strike, the low wages, the sweated labour, the ‘phossy jaw’ — bones eaten away by phosphorous. It hurts your heart.

They were fierce, these women. They worked in the old Bryant and May factory just down the road from where I lived in Bow when I first moved to London. A gated community of luxury apartments now, I had always wondered about that building.


Matchwomen at Bryant and May's factory shortly before their famous strike


They went on strike, simply walked out fed up and organised union and strike fund afterwards, and still they won. After this, the tram workers organised, meeting at midnight at  Pilgrim Hall in the New Kent Rd — the only time they could all get together being off shift. They demanded five journeys a day rather than six, and got their demands. Workers at the Beckton Gas Works organised, and won an eight hour day, with fewer retorts to fill and no reduction in wages without ever going on strike. This was led by Will Thorne, and he was present at the burst of discontent that would kick off the docker’s strike.

This fills the remainder of the book — the organising of the pickets, how the more charismatic John Burns came to lead it rather than Ben Tillett who had been organising there all along.

John Burns addressing a meeting during the strike of 1889. © National Maritime Museum, London
John Burns addressing a meeting during the strike of 1889.
© National Maritime Museum, London

The mass meetings on Tower Hill to report back on progress with negotiations at Dock House on Leadenhall Street. The move of the campaign from Tillett’s headquarters at Wroote Coffee House to The Wade’s Arms, the reorganisation of relief for thousands of men on strike (saved in the key last days of hunger and misery by thousands of pounds collected and sent from Australia). The brakes put on the strike, when more men wanted to join, such as the engineers from Westwood and Baillie of Millwall and were discouraged from doing so.

A description of Burns from the Star, August 27, highlighting that this is a manly man’s strike:

He carried a short, stout stick. His keen, strong eye, looking out from his strong rugged face and from beneath dark brows, glanced round the room with a searching look… There is something about Burns that gives you, the moment you see him, a great sense of power. It is partly perhaps the splendid physique–like a brawny blacksmith: it is partly the straight and fearless eyes; it is partly the easy and strong pose of an athlete, as he sits on the arm of a chair, with his Inverness cape thrown loosely back; it is partly the virile voice–slightly husky now, from over-speaking, but still deep and resonant and masculine (138).

There are other short notes I found of interest:

‘The once notorious Mahogany Bar in Ratcliffe Highway, since 1888 a Non-Conformist Mission Centre, provided 700-800 breakfasts daily and soup for wives and children at mid-day’ (140).

The outpouring of support, the women who cooked and raised money were tremendous. There is another mention of someone I know:

That mysterious figure, Miss Harkness, who had been constantly in touch with the Committee at The Wade’s Arms, came to him [Cardinal Manning], he says, “from the strikers.” Old Newman, his butler, was disinclined to admit her…But within half an hour, the persistent Miss Harkness had seen the Cardinal… (155)

And this on other unions from my side of the river:

The only trade of any great importance was the coal trade. The men of Clapham and Wandsworth struck on the persuasion of the North London men. The Brixton men seemed likely to join (154).

14,000 tickets were being handed out to men on strike by the men, an extraordinary logistical effort requiring immense resources. The role of the women running this cannot be underestimated though it does not appear here really.

Again from the Surrey side, the unexpected actions of Mr Henry Lafone, who ran Butler’s Wharf and allowed his own men on strike two shillings a day.

I’m not sure how to take Stafford’s description of the ‘No Work Manifesto’ — essentially calling for a general strike if the Dock Companies did not move towards an acceptable compromise. Stafford is clearly not in favour and saw this as the move that hardened the opposition and lost the support of the public. She describes with great favour the Conciliation Committee — the Bishop of London, the Lord Mayor, Cardinal Manning, Mr Sydney Buxton, M.P. for Poplar. This is not a committee I would trust particularly to negotiate on the behalf of working men, even though the shipowners and many men of wealth and business were on the side of the dockers at the end. I do think Stafford’s class identity consistently betrays her in the telling of this story both in its focus and in its view of strategy and acceptable goals. But there is nothing about her online, only that Stafford is a pseudonym and her real name was Ann Pedlar, this in spite of the fact she is the author of nine other books listed inside the cover. It’s as if no one cared about women writing histories of the unions, imagine that.

Back to the dockers though, I am looking forward to hearing this in their own words and there are multiple autobiographies, but to finish with Stafford’s account.

There was some last-minute negotiating, rushed conferences, lack of full consultation — so familiar, it is all so familiar. They reached a compromise finally, called it a victory though it was debatable how much exactly the dockers had won. Stafford writes:

This then, was the great achievement: unskilled men had learned how to combine, and as a result, the ‘New Unionism’ of 1889 laid the foundations of the Trade Unionism of today. Almost overnight the tiny Tea Operatives and General Labourers Union became the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers Union of Great Britain and Ireland, which was in time to become the Transport and General Workers Union with its Headquarters at Transport House (202).

[Stafford, Ann (1961) A Match to Fire the Thames. London: Hodder and Stoughton.]

More on the East End…