The Earliest Unions, 1870–89

  • John Lovell


The characteristics of the port’s labour force, noted in the previous chapter, did not make for an easy growth of trade unionism. The localised character of the port industry might be thought to be a factor favouring organisation, as in the case of coal mining, but localisation does not in itself produce stable and cohesive communities conducive to union growth. A large sector of port employment, quay work mainly, was open to constant infiltration from outside, from the unemployed of other trades, so that the waterside population existed in a state of constant flux. It was furthermore, as we have seen, a population that had been inflated by the casual system to a size far beyond the real requirements of the port. Only in quite exceptional circumstances did labour shortages occur, so that normally employers had little difficulty in replacing troublesome employees. Nevertheless there are references to strikes on the London waterfront extending back at least as far as the eighteenth century.1 In the age of sail the work of the port was sometimes held up by long spells of adverse winds, and, in the feverish activity that followed, workers could exploit the situation by indulging in sudden stoppages. Times of trading prosperity, as in the early 1850s, also provided port workers with an opportunity to improve their position by industrial action.2


Trade Union Shipping Company Executive Council Union Preference Port Worker 
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  1. 4.
    See Royden Harrison, Before the Socialists (1965), especially ch. 1.Google Scholar
  2. 28.
    Evidence of Mr Falvy, a granary corn porter, in R.C. on Labour (1892), C. 6708, Evidence Group B, vol. 1, Q 2649.Google Scholar
  3. 68.
    See E. J. Hobsbawm, ‘National Unions on the Waterside’, in Labouring Men (1964). Hobsbawm records the existence of the League, but sees the movement of 1889 as being the really significant landmark in waterside unionism. In this connection see the Conclusion, where further reference is made to the above work.Google Scholar
  4. 72.
    See general account in H. A. Clegg, Alan Fox and A. F. Thompson, A History of British Trade Unions (Oxford, 1964) I i.Google Scholar
  5. 107.
    E. G. Howarth and M. Wilson, West Ham (1907) p. 214.Google Scholar
  6. 124.
    See Harry Gosling, Up and Down Stream (1927) p. 145.Google Scholar
  7. 125.
    There is a thorough survey of the lightermen’s history and organisation in C. L. Wheble, ‘The London Lighterage Trade’ (M.Sc. thesis, London, 1939).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© J. C. Lovell 1969

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Lovell
    • 1
  1. 1.University of KentCanterburyUK

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