Saturday 1 July 2017

The South London Gas Workers Strike 1889

The following piece was written in 1989 - for the anniversary of the strike - and published in the long forgotten 'South London Record'.  It was almost the first piece I ever had published and, reading it now, I realise how much the text reflects - well - reflects 1989.

It have published it because on Friday I did a talk for Lewisham Local History Society on gas in Greenwich. Afterwards people asked questions, mentioned the strike and said that as 'everyone knew' Will Thorne set up a 'new union' for gasworkers, and struck for the 8 hour day in South London agains George Livesey and South Met. Gas..   They all got quite annoyed when I said that nothing in that statement was true.

Reading this piece now I am not sure that among all the detail that I made that clear even then.  The 'new unions' were a concept dreamt up by 1960s academics and demonstrably rubbish.  Gasworkers had been organised for years and there had been major strikes before 1889.  It was illegal for gasworkers to strike, so what happened was a mass giving in of notices. Will Thorne was in Manchester throughout and didn't return to London until all was lost, and then gave a nonsense speech.  The South Met. workers didn't come out for the 8 hour day - which they already had - they came out for union reconition and the right to organise in the workplace. 

The South London union members were playing by what they thought were the rules - and they expected management to behave predicatably.  But management was George Livesey who always talked conventionally and then did the exact opposite. 

I would write this now very differently.  I think the South London workforce were basically stitched up - although I am not sure who by.  Livesey had nursed the ideas of a 'partnership scheme' with the workforce for the past 30 years and been stopped from implementing it by his Board.  He hated the idea of the union - 'outsiders' in 'his' gasworks - but he probably hated the North London Gas managers at Beckton more than that.  It also looks - between the lines - if Beckton had done a deal with Thorne of some sort.  

Who knows!  The piece contains lots of local detail - fights in Blackwall Lane, goings on in local pubs, Birmingham roughs upsetting Rotherhithe , and much more ............

South London in 1889 was the scene of a massive strike of gas workers. In these quiet streets workers and police battled while thousands of blacklegs worked under siege conditions until the strike was broken.  

The gas industry was changing. Until the 1880s gas had been sold mainly for street lighting - now electricity was a competitor; traditional ways of working were being changed. London Gas Companies had been forced by government and consumer group pressure to cut prices and profits and made to amalgamate for efficiency. Companies were often owned by the local authority but in London (with no unified strong local government) they stayed in private hands. In 1889 the first London County Council had been elected with a remit to municipalise.  
Gas workers, managers and owners all felt under threat.   
The strike took place in the South Metropolitan Gas Company, which supplied gas to Lambeth, Greenwich and Southwark and prided themselves on a good public service; with low prices. They also prided themselves on good employee relations. Since the 1870s there were paid holidays and help with sick and superannuation schemes. They did not get on with the Chartered Company which covered most of North London.   
Most important was South Met's remarkable Chairman, George Livesey who had helped along several revolutions in the industry. For years he had nurtured idealistic views. He intended to put  it into practice.    

The company’s works were at Old Kent Road; South Met.'s original  works. George Livesey had been brought up in a house on site.  Opposite is the library he gave to the people of Camberwell in 1888

These events happened in the same streets we see today, to people who lived in thesame houses, used the same shops, churches. parks and pubs.           -  

Gas workers were not all 'stokers'. Others handled the coal worked in the streets, were tradesmen, meter readers, fitters. More stokers were employed in the winter than the summer and they were big men at the peak of their strength with more involved in the job than unremitting shovelling. Most works ran 12 hour shifts on and off seven days a week.  

Many of these men were churchgoers - deeply respectable, involved in temperance and friendly societies, as well as political parties and trade unions. Among them George Livesey was known as a benefactor, a local Sunday School teacher, a founder of the Band of Hope, local boys and temperance clubs. Both sides laid claim to temperance - it was a sign of respectability and status. Roughs drank in pubs - respectable gas workers were abstainers.        

People know about Will Thorne and have read how he and Eleanor Marx formed the Gas Workers Union and won the 8 hour-day. The impression that gas workers hadn't been unionised until 1889 is not so.In fact gas workers had organised together from the first days of the industry including a major strike in 1872 federated throughout London when activists were imprisoned. Laws were passed to make strikes illegal and notices hung inside gas works about this. Local union branches probably just lay low.  

Will Thorne was from Manchester and had worked at the Old Kent Road .He described vividly the hardness of gasworkers' lives. By 1889 had moved to East London and in early 1889 he began to organise and set up a union structure. Individual branches organised separately, gas workers of South London saw very little of him and  nothing at all of Eleanor Marx, although she lived in Sydenham.  

Some activists were members of the left wing Social Democratic Federation with branches in Deptford, Peckham and Wandsworth - and a social life of brass bands, club rooms, draughts and cards.  Union activity spread to South London and on 11th May 1889 a half  mile long procession of gasworkers’ converged on Deptford Broadway  with a stevedores brass band, silk banners from local temperance  bodies and Will Thorne. They called for the eight hour shift system.  Soon branches were active in most works including Old Kent Road (with a paid secretary, Mr Heard, ordering handbills) and Greenwich (buying bills and posters). They met in Coffee Taverns in Blackwall  Lane, Peckham High Street and Woolwich; Lambs Lane Schoolroom;  St Joseph's Catholic Church or Three Cups Hall in East Greenwich.  

Two South Met. branch representatives attended an all-London  meeting of the GWU on 20th May where it was decided to petition  management for 72 retorts per shift (the 8 hour day). This petition  was agreed to by a mass meeting at Deptford and sent to the South  Met. Board. The Manager at Rotherhithe told Mr Rowbottom, the  union representative, 'if the men acted straightforward' they would  be treated similarly.  

They met Livesey and a week later a notice appeared in all the works. This gave possible changes and asked the men to decide which  scheme - 8 or 12 hours - they would prefer with a ballot for each works. The offer made was complex and detailed. The eight hour system involved a different pace. 

It was not necessarily easier. The  ballot result showed that 'in all cases the 8 hour shift was preferred' but the Board minuted that after this there should be 'no more concessions'.  

Most gas workers were now on 8 hour shifts and the GWU named  28th July as "the day of our emancipation". A celebration demonstration was held in Hyde Park. 12,000 heard Will Thorne, and John  Burns - with local leader Mark Hutchins, and MP Mark Beaufoy (the vinegar magnate whose Kennington Liberal Party branch had just  called on him to support the gasworkers).  

Once the eight hour day had been won life returned to normal. A  benefit was held at the Deptford Liberal Club, the SDF held meetings  at 20 Frobisher Street, and at Hadleys Coffee Shop, Deptford Bridge;  their Peckham drum and fife band practised, South Met. Directors  were proud to announce a reduction in gas prices following their successful campaign to abolish coal dues and the Star Band of Hope  Drum and Fife Band played at the Athletic Club prize giving.  Throughout August South Met. fought the Chartered" Gas Company  in the House of Lords. Judgement was found against them and George Livesey was not happy. He was too busy to attend the meeting  of the Local Option Movement but went to the Workmen's Association  for Defence of British Industry in Camberwell, chaired by a  Conservative Fair Trader and a few days later he distributed prizes  at a Peckham school on behalf of the Band of Hope. At the same time  one of the most significant events of the decade was taking place -  the great dock strike - 'the match to set  the Thames  afire'.  Along the  Riverside dock workers marched, suffered and won their 'tanner'. Gas  companies and union men watched their progress.   

The GWU concentrated on recruitment - 'a determination to  persuade, and if that failed to compel every man in the Company's  employ to join'. They were helped by the SDF with meetings like that outside Christ Church, East Greenwich, where a gas worker talked  about socialism, or at the gasworks gates in Marsh Lane where they could intercept churchgoers. A meeting on Peckham Rye called for Livesey  to be forced to recognise the union and in September the union wrote  to him saying that retort house workers should be union members.  The company replied that the union would not be recognised and that  non-union men would be protected. Men were sacked at Vauxhall and  the union said that unless they were reinstated work would cease.  'The entire body of stokers' handed in their statutory weeks’ notice.  
Unable to cope and with preparations only partly made 'Mr Livesey  stated his willingness to recognise the union'. An agreement was  signed 'The Company agree ... that members of the Gas Stokers  Union shall not .,. be interfered with by ... the company'. The  Directors had also resolved that the union 'cannot be recognised'.   

All over Britain GWU branches put demands to management, sometimes  - in  Bristol and Manchester - these turned to strikes. Elsewhere they  were conceded'.   The trade press wrote that a major confrontation  must soon come 'in a London works' and although John Burns was  not 'in the same berth as the anarchist of the Continent' in South  Met. 'only directors rule'.   

At a Barking meeting the GWU agreed, with 'vigorous socialist speech', to ask for the abolition of Sunday working.  Sunday working  is a more complicated issue than it appears. Livesey had tried to get  it abolished 20 years earlier carrying out a survey with the Lords Day  Observance Society - accusations of exploiting workers on a Sunday  would provoke an angry reaction.  

In times of industrial unrest London Gas Company managements  always set up a joint committee and such a meeting was held on 4th  November at the Cannon Street Hotel between the Union and  London Managements - including South Met. The meeting saw a  measure of agreement - both sides acknowledged the need for recreation and agreed that technical problems were the difficulty on a day  of peak demand. They adjourned for consultation and reconvened on  the 11th with much agreement - the GWU 'devoutly wished for  peaceful working so admirably put by the Chairman' and the Chair,  Mr Jones of the Commercial Co., was 'overwhelmed by the virtue of the strike committee'. South Met. management did not attend this   second meeting and union representatives reported 'overtures being  made by South Met. to the men to detach themselves from the union  for a " bonus'.  

Livesey had declared war on the GWU. South Met. had abandoned  moves towards a formal negotiating structure. Between the two  Cannon Street meetings Livesey introduced plans to smash the  smash the union, reduce costs and implement his grand and long dreamt of  scheme for partnership of consumer, shareholder and workforce.      

He and his wife had been in Eastbourne and on returning to the   works  he walked across Telegraph Hill. He had the idea then that it  ought to be a public park. At Old Kent Road he met Charles Tanner  head foreman who said 'the stokers are all in the union - we have  lost all  authority - unless you do something - we shall be completely   in the power.  Livesey said 'I had not thought out anything but in a  quarter of an hour on half a sheet of paper!'

In this he was a liar. This profit sharing scheme was something he  nursed lovingly for years and had only been prevented from  using it by board members who saw it as madness. It was no straightforward scheme but something so clever" and intricately  thought out that it became an instrument by which South Met.  workers became the willing slaves of the company; happy, obedient,  property owning, non-union men. It called for hard work, conformity  and respectability . it offered security.             

Livesey saw a partnership of company and consumer embodied in the  sliding scale by which the gas industry price and profit was calculated  and originally promoted by him. Now he was to add the workforce  into this partnership. The  bonus was directly linked to the price of  gas; rising as it fell. In order to qualify workers had to sign an agreement to work for a year. Dates of agreements would be staggered to  make strikes impossible. Many workers signed at once sending their  thanks 'to the Employers - for their generous concession'.  

On 21st November the company held a meeting at Old Kent Road for  men who had signed (a transcript was published). Livesey told them  'the orange has been squeezed dry ... now is the time to have some-  thing more than the mere labour of workmen - we want his interest'.  Some of the workers present raised their concerns - what would  happen, for instance, if someone was victimised by a foreman?  Concessions were made in detail and a consultation structure set up.  But the clause penalising strike action, on which Livesey was  adamant, remained. A carpenter, Henry Austin, suggested that  company shares should be sold to workers under the scheme. Austin  was an eccentric amateur etymologist who became one of the first  worker directors at South Met. after share purchase was introduced  four years later.   

Will Thorne said 'those that signed the agreements were cowards,  tyrants and curs' and he went to Manchester to stay for the next six  weeks. Union men did not sign the agreement and within a fortnight  union activists at Vauxhall had said they could not work with three  men who had signed. They said 'all the men in the South  Metropolitan Gas Works are justified in giving their notices forth-  with until the scheme be abolished'. The Board sent this on to the  daily papers commenting 'it has been the rule of the company for at  least fifty years that men who strike leave the company without hope  of return'.  

Before noon on the 5th December 2000 notices had been handed in  and the Board set in motion their plans.  Agents had been sent round the country to obtain blacklegs; in the  Kent brickfields 'willing workers' were being offered a bonus and free  food on top of wages - 5/4 for an eight hour shift. The entire staff of  Ramsgate Gas Works was recruited - to the annoyance of Mr Valon,  its manager; agents were giving away beer in Cambridge . In Yarmouth 'scabs protected by the police were taken off by tram but  the local SDF branch saw them off 'with a warm groan'. Barclay'  Brewery sent men, workhouse inmates were told to apply or lose benefit; the Prisoners Aid Society directed discharged prisoners there, Gas workers on strike from the Manchester arrived  - they said  Londoners always blacklegged on them. 'Free Labour' also came -men recruited as dedicated strike-breakers by politically motivated  agents like William Collinson, who wrote a book about it although  John Burns said Livesey 'dropped Free Labour like a hot potato' .

Corrugated iron huts were erected inside the works. Food was  hrought in - animals, tinned meat, tapioca and bread from the  Golden Grain Bread Co. Beer from the Lion Brewery was provided _  criticised by temperance strikers who thought Livesey was on their   side in this -'this virtuous gent is one of the shining lights of the temperance platform yet he has collected numerous barrels of beer  anxious to make his blackleg crew roaring drunk.' '   

Success for the strikers would need stoppage of the coal supply. The  coal porters union had just submitted a claim to all London employers for an increase but South Met. disputed it. This parallel dispute  continued. . Another union involved was the Sailors and Firemen's  with some success in stopping cargoes arriving.  

A strike committee, with Mark Hutchins as Chair opened' its headquarters opposite the works at 592 Old Kent Road. Picketing began  and soon men sent from Mitcham Workhouse were given breakfast  and sent home. A party from Portsmouth returned home from  Clapham Junction taking union leaflets.

John Burns sent a postcard from Manchester 'Dear Sir, I will render the strike committee all the help I am capable of to resist this latest  demand to crush your union'. He was the local hero - at demonstrations men wore pictures of him in their hats.     

In very cold weather 2000 people met on Peckham Rye to hear Mark  Hutchins say the bonus scheme had been set up to break the union. A  lamplighter called out 'stokers did not get such a bad wage'. He was  knocked down and dumped in a pond.  

The incident pointed to a problem. The public did not understand  why relatively well paid gas workers should strike against something  apparently offering  financial advantages and security. 'People are   willing to help the docker because he was very poor but are not  willing to help the stoker who is reported to get 35/- a week'.  

The strikers had given a weeks’ notice; tension mounted. On Monday  afternoon Livesey returned from an interview with Police  Commissioner Munro to find a crowd of stokers in the yard at Old Kent Road arguing with the Chief Engineer. He threatened them all  with prosecution alleging thereply was 'can't help that master we  must obey the union'. Forms for summonses had already been made  out and by late afternoon 50 policemen had marched into each works  'to relieve public fear of destruction of geometers'. On Tuesday  morning nine strangers were seen in East Greenwich and men  downed tools until they were gone.   

On Wednesday Livesey met the Union Executive. Positions were  restated. The Union wanted the scheme withdrawn - the company  refused.   

There were attempts at reconciliation by outside bodies. A deputation  of local MPs and local clergymen tried for an hour and a half to  persuade Livesey that the right to strike was 'sacred'. He told them to  mind their own business. Non-conformist ministers were told unionists had given in their legal notice and were leaving. Later on the  Labour Co-partnership Association which had been agitating for  years for schemes like Livesey's as a solution to industrial ills made a  major attempt at negotiating a settlement.   

The Strike Committee issued a statement: 'the directors will not  advance one inch .... we deeply regret this step fully knowing the  inconvenience to which it will put the general public .... we hope that  all trade unions will see in this a test case as to the right of existence  of trade unions versus bonus'.   

Arrangements were made for the day when men would leave. All  workers contributed 3d a week to a superannuation scheme and  would withdraw their 'lump sums' - they would have to live on some-  thing. The 'old men' would leave the works by 6am - the 'new men'  would come in two hours later. Men at, West Greenwich threw  blankets into Deptford Creek. The last gangs at Greenwich and Old  Kent Road, set fire to washrooms. An effigy of Livesey was burnt  outside the Pilot in Riverway, and a black fog hung over London.   

Men began to leave on 13th December, played out by the SDF brass band. A procession of sympathisers was turned back by police who,  many mounted, lined the streets - others were in reserve in railway  waiting rooms. A train from Spalding arrived at Victoria and replacement workers marched across Vauxhall Bridge. A train from Margate  came into Cannon Street at 10 am with new workers for Bankside.  Men were brought to the West Greenwich works wharf in 'two strange steamers' having embarked at Woolwich from trains at  Arsenal station.   

The ‘'new men' needed to be big and strong to do the work. Reporters  hurl noted the 'old men' had an 'average height of at least  5'10" and  wore all of powerful build'. Now the 'new men' were evaluated, 'there  were  many of Herculean build - there were seamen, navvies 'and raw  youths.

1000 stokers' wives lined the streets to see the shift out watched by  the police under Inspector Munro. The press reported men leaving 'in  dejected state'. The 'new men' left the station and walked two by  two down the middle of the road between 'two compact lines of constables on foot' to gates where the pickets had been withdrawn. In  the Old Kent Road there was a fight at Canal Bridge gate - the' Strike  Committee wanted Livesey to come and witness police behaviour.  

There had been a fight at Rotherhithe. Out of a crowd of 100 Fred  Cook from Wapping was arrested for striking a policeman on the  back. He said the policeman had cut his lip and he had a witness to it  - William Causton, secretary of the Rotherhithe Strike Committee.  Causton took the policeman's number to the police station - from  where he was ejected with force. Jim Bright of Peckham was arrested  for kicking policemen in the legs while drunk - Jim Beaton had tried  to rescue him until he too was arrested with Sarah Manor and Edith  Calvert for throwing stones at the police.   

In  Blackwall Lane 50 mounted police escorted blacklegs from  Westcombe Park Station to East Greenwich works when 'a lively  scrimmage' broke out. Police said that striker's stones had concussed  one sergeant - a stone was produced in court. Another had his helmet  knocked off - also produced, muddy and dented. One striker had been  snatched from custody by pickets. Despite a local clergyman's testimony to the good character of James Parker, age 20, he and three  others all living around Blackwall Lane were sentenced to hard  labour.  

Picketing was more successful at Vauxhall where 160 from  Birmingham agreed to return. Reports circulated that police would  not let blacklegs out even if they wanted - they were pushed back  over the wall when they tried to climb out.  

The blacklegs were now in the works and the only question left was -  can they make the gas? It was mid-December-freezing and foggy.  Local people watched the great gasholders at Old Kent Road, Oval  and East Greenwich all landmarks in their districts, to try to gauge'  the success of the strike by 
the amount of gas in them. Rumour said  that the holder at Old Kent Road was really full of air. By morning  the fog had begun to disperse. Gas was made - the company was coping.   

The 'loyal workforce' produced an ecstatic memorial of thanks but the people showed sympathy for their striking neighbours. The local papers thought the strike committee 'a fine body of men' and the local vestrys would not co-operate with Livesey's requests for help. Mr  Stockbridge, Vice-Chairman of the Lambeth Guardians spoke on strike platforms. Dulwich and Penge Liberal Party passed a resolution against police violence and collected for the strike fund. The  George Livesey Lodge of the Old Comrades and Sons of Phoenix  changed its name to the John Bums Lodge. At Bermondsey vestry  Harry Quelch, SDF activist; complained the street lighting wasn't  safe and proposed they sue the company - it was referred to the LCC.   Kennington Liberal and Radical Club passed a resolution against the  use of police in labour disputes.  

Support came from other unions, the Dockers' Hydraulic Branch  would not lift coal, the Bakers' Union would not bake bread inside the  Works. The Sailors and Firemen were 'still pegging away' to prevent  coal  arriving. 50 men watched from Creek Bridge as a screw collier   unloaded. By Tuesday two ships were ready - one at the jetty  And one in the Commercial Docks. Fifty men were sent under police  escort to unload them.  

Conditions were bad inside the works. Blacklegs complained of  drunkenness. A foreman left because of the dirt. Men were ill. There  special sanitary arrangements with unpleasant disinfectant  - blacklegs were re 'wallowing in filth'. The Medical Officer of Health at  Lambeth Vestry inspected 
works at the striker's request. There was  ale in zinc buckets, and clay pipes. Between the gasholders at Old   Kent Road was a marquee with a piano and an old retort bench for  heating. The work was unfamiliar and more skilled 'than many recognised.  Men were injured - 150 were burnt and one was killed moving  a coal truck. Military ambulances were requisitioned for injuries.  

William Derry a striking stoker, got into a fight at the Dover Castle  Deptford. He had taken a 'pint of ale' there together with two   herrings ands a haddock from a blackleg's pocket. The police found  them all in the Rose and Crown unable to walk and buying hot rum.   

“Free Labour” meant Birmingham teenagers. 'Not worth the expense  of bringing them down' said the Company. Thomas Cooper and John  Henny both 16 from Birmingham were arrested drunk and disorderly  in Rotherhithe.  Disgusted strikers said they were 'a rough lot who did  not mean to work and were busy dodging the foremen'. They said  blacklegs smoked through church services held in the works.  Mr  Cady complained bitterly - Birmingham roughs, too young to work.   

Union representatives met Livesey to find he would make no concessions . He would take men back when there were vacancies _ he could  not discharge new hands to whom he had a legal obligation. The  union stated 'We went out on strike with no object of gaining an  increase we cannot forget the attachment that we feel to our old  employers and nothing would give us greater satisfaction than a  return to our previous good relations.'   

Two strikers entered the West Greenwich works on Saturday night -  Tom Elliot (31 Bellot Street) and Tom Jevons (21 Coleraine Road).  They spoke to the blacklegs in the canteen 'why don't. you act as men   it's through you our wives and children are starving', They were  arrested.   

Striker's families were feeling the pinch. Money collected at demonstrations was the main source of income and men were advised to  find other work if they could. Strikes in Manchester and Woolwich Arsenal had to be financed too. Parades as morale builders continued  every day and funds collected. R. Smith of Deptford raised  money  through publishing a book of poems. Deptford SDF held a grand dioramic and vocal entertainment', and at Trinity Hall, Deptford the  brass band of the Greenwich branch of the gas stokers played selections. Strikers marched from East Greenwich to the concert where  there were speeches.   

Despite very bad weather, Greenwich gasworkers marched all the  way to Hyde Park with an effigy of Livesey to hear Edward Aveling  and Ben Tillet. They were overshadowed by Mr Weir, a compositor  who said that Livesey should not be allowed 'to live 24 hours - he  ought to be got rid of.' There was a furore in the press and Weir ~as  tried for incitement to murder. Livesey also received threatening  letters 'Note Mr Livesey as you won't give in and my family is  starving for a bit of bread beware o'dynamite your place will be blown  up a bit before Christmas'.   

On Christmas Eve the holders were full of gas and the strike in  Manchester had collapsed. Xmas brought extra strike pay, beer and  tobacco at Vauxhall Working Men's Club thanks to Reverend Morris.  Blacklegs got extra food, tobacco, pay and amusements. Street fighting continued in Rotherhithe.   

800 met on Peckham Rye, 'in the middle of a dense fog upon till I  Cr "I. n as hard as iron and white with hoar frost'. What they needed  was support from North London gasworkers who had stayed resolutely in work.  An unsavoury incident involving the leader of the Coal  Porters Union who offered the North London Chartered Company a  110 strike deal if they would persuade their workers to leave the GWU  and join the Coal Porters.

By New Year 1890 the 'new men' were hardly 'new anymore and  afraid they would be discharged if the strike was settled - they were  aII reassured but 'old men' were returning to work - coal porters at West  Greenwich with promises of future good behaviour. Those still out  described them as 'sneaking rats, double dyed traitors - the ordinary  blackleg is white in comparison with such miserable curs'.   
Rumours  of fever at Rotherhithe led to notices of denial on entrances  although five men were in Guys with 'Russian influenza'. Worse were  rumours of lice. Anxious to end the siege conditions the company got  local ‘reverend gentlemen of the State superstition' from Greenwich  to find lodgings through a door to door canvass by their Sunday School teachers

On the 8th January the strike committee were thrown out of their  offices. The police came in the morning and without knocking broke   down the shutters and windows. Furniture, books, papers and  musical instruments were all thrown into the street. They went to a  coffee house at  87 Old Kent Road and put up a poster 'The Battering Ram Brigade of London'. Meanwhile Greenwich branch had a new  banner with “two figures standing in the road, one a gas worker about to   enter the gas house and in the other a capitalist dressed in the usual  Mother Grundy fashion'.   

By the end of the next week the press were claiming the strike was  over. A meeting was held at Mile End Assembly Rooms - 2000 men  were still out and it was costing £1000 a week, while weather was  improving and the chance of casual work lessening. They said they  would call on Parliament, people and trade unionists for help for unity and freedom and, and for progress and right. They must appeal to  trade union movement Livesey could not hold out against the  miners and coal trimmers
There was a promise of a weekly levy from 800 hatters and £5 a week  from the glassblower but the press claimed that Will Thorne was  being paid £2.5s a week and Mark Hutchins was getting nothing.  T.Bailey of the Southern Counties Labour League said from the   window of the Rose and Crown in Lambeth that the union was not  bankrupt. Thorne had told West Southwark Radical Club that there was only £800 left.  

Thorne spoke on 17th January: 'they had come out for eight hours  and they would go back for eight hours,' continuing with more drama  'they were not going to creep and crawl to Livesey for work, they  would become revolutionists - a revolt of every working man in  England to overwhelm the 
country'. Mark Hutchins said he had  hoped to be able to announce the end of the strike. They had been to  Livesey with an offer but while they were talking the Secretary  pulled him away. The London Trades Council had been asked to find  a solution and on 4th February it was announced that an agreement  had been reached at a mass meeting at the Hatcham Liberal Club.  

'That, except where mutually agreed to the contrary the company  reverts to the eight hour system - that in the event of any vacancies  arising the directors will give their former workmen the opportunity  of returning to their employment in preference to strangers.'  

The strike headquarters became an agency co-ordinating help for  hard-pressed families and an appeal was issued. They were soon to  be visited by Livesey with a donation.  


Telegraph Hill was dedicated as a memorial to the strike.  Livesey's bonus scheme flourished. It became 'co-partnership' and all  workers became shareholders.  

They were encouraged to put bonus payments into property - the  company formed a building society. A consultation process was set up  with elected representatives to discuss workplace problems and  policy. Three company directorships were elected by the shareholding  workforce - with the same rights and powers as directors appointed  by capitalist shareholders. Livesey fought long and hard to get legislation for these changes through a hostile board and House of  Commons. By the 1920s most gas companies still in private hand  had schemes like it - but without the worker directors.  

Following a speech by Will Thorne in 1892 GWU membership was banned at South Met. There are stories of workers victimised when  their union membership was discovered. Although GWU maintained  branches in the area membership was often from other trades.  

The South Met. gas workers' dispute has been described as an  episode in new unionism. This is only partly true - it is about something more complicated. New unionism is about the casual unskilled previously unorganised joining together. Gas workers in 1889  probably didn't see themselves as casual and unskilled but as  workers whose status as respectable people with steady jobs was  under l threat. The union offered them a means of maintaining their  deputy and achieving some control over it.  
George Livesey responded by offering his workforce a means of  achieving both identity and control. The union spoke of liberty of the  individual Livesey offered them the chance to become Company men.  His success can be measured in the hundreds of gas industry employees who still in 1989 see themselves and their families as something  special   because they work in gas in South London. To quote one 'I am a socialist and I know it was all wrong - but it was a very good  scheme.

Today workers are being offered property ownership, respectability,  in return for membership of the institutions of labour -which  is why what happened in South London in 1889 is something we should, take heed of 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

My Grandfather was R. Parram. He was presented with a sash that I have, it was in the early 1900s . Its got Federated Union No4 NUGW Of GB & I Haggerston Branch No11. Just wondered if there is anywhere I could send it to ie Museum.