Great London Dock Strike of 1889

My Mom, Kathy, and I share a fascination with the stories and the things we learn by searching though the history of our family.   It is fascinating to learn about our ancestors, but they are long gone and, if the truth be told, we will never know many of them but we can try to learn more the reasons why they moved around, the work they did and how they lived their lives by studying the times in which they lived.  So, is was very exciting when we discovered several newspaper articles that went beyond names and dates but recounted specific details about our elusive Captain Priske, his life and experiences at sea.

Captain Thomas Teague Priske visited many ports and surely saw many amazing sights over his long career traversing the world’s oceans but in 1889 he was a witness to history and shared his personal account of the Great London Dock Strike with the Montreal Gazette on September 16, 1889.

Erl King

The Steamer Erl King

On August 12, 1889, just days before Captain Priske would command the Erl King on a voyage from London to Montreal, the strike began.

Thousands of dock laborers had walked out, demanding higher pay and changes in the way men were hired.   In addition to low pay and uncertain “on call” work hours the dock workers endured unsafe working conditions and poor living standards as a result of pay that was significantly lower than other working class occupations.  Approximately 130,000 workers were on strike by the end of August and as the strikes spread throughout the East End of London the port was brought to a standstill.

It was under these conditions that Captain Priske prepared to sail for Montreal.  Here is his account:

The Ross Line steamship Erl King, the first vessel to arrive in this port from London since the inauguration of the great strike of dock laborers in the great metropolis, moored at her dock early on Saturday morning, having anchored below Longue Pointe overnight. Her master, Capt. Thos. Priske, well known from his many visits to this port, yesterday told a Gazette reporter an interesting account of his experience with the London strikers.

Striking Dockworkers, London, 1889

A few days before the time fixed for the Erl King’s departure the strike broke out, as a bolt out of the blue, and, as a result, the arrangements made for the loading of the vessel were all undone. Even the foremen and sub-foremen of the dock companies, who had nothing to gain by the strike, and who will not benefit a penny by the concessions to the laborers, deserted their posts and the docks, usually so full of life and bustle, became as a deserted village, only the special police and the strikers’ pickets taking the place of the thousands usually there.

Victoria Docks 1872

The Victoria docks, in which the Erl King had her berth, soon became congested, and when the Erl King left – she was the only outward bound vessel that passed Gravesend on Aug. 31, when hundreds pass as a general rule – there were at least 500 vessels in the Victoria docks alone, not to mention the West India and London docks, which were also crowded with vessels, loaded in the majority of cases with perishable cargo.  A person who did not see it cannot imagine the stagnation which came over the usually busy Thames.

The Deserted River Thames 1889

Never in his experience had he seen the river so deserted, only a barge or a police boat moving in the channel which, at other times, is crowded with vessels from all points of the world.   The Ross Line alone had five steamers tied up, as well as several sailing vessels.

After waiting two or three days in the hope that the owners would be able to secure other hands, Capt. Priske decided on loading his vessel himself with the aid of his officers. The project was not unattended with danger, inasmuch as the strikers threatened to prevent it, and the officers accordingly armed themselves with revolvers, but luckily they had no to cause to use them. The leaders of the strike, especially Burns, brought pressure to bear upon the more hot-headed of their followers and they were allowed to complete the work in peace, but not without some apprehensions. The work of loading the vessel was slow, unused as they were to it, but after several days it was completed and the vessel sailed fourteen days after she had intended to. The Erl King brought out a large general cargo, including a considerable quantity of scrap iron, and her arrival will raise the embargo which has existed in several lines of business owing to the non-arrival of vessels from London. Capt. Priske was glad to learn that the strike was ended and laughed at the idea entertained by some people that the concessions of the strikers would drive trade away from London. The people were there and the trade would always go there.

Asked his opinion of Burns, the captain said he was undoubtedly a born leader of men and one who would be heard from again. He was a self-made man, a natural orator, and had a wonderful command over his followers. He (Capt. Priske) had been present at the great meeting in Hyde Park, at which over 100,000 people were present, and the chief characteristic of the vast gathering was the complete control which Burns had over the masses. His every wish was obeyed almost as soon as given, and it was his influence alone which had prevented a great outbreak of violence. The worse feature about the whole affair was the suffering it entailed on the wives and families of the strikers who, despite the efforts of many charitable organizations, starved by the hundred. The distress was something terrible, the pawnbrokers reaped a rich harvest, and it would be many months before the strikers would recover their lost ground, even at the advanced wages. In spite of this distress and want of money, however many of the strikers managed to get liquor, and thus made a bad matter worse. Cardinal Manning’s share in the settlement of the dispute would, the captain thought, enhance his already great reputation, and might have much effect in bringing the ignorant masses of the east end of London to a knowledge of Christian truth, and thus improve their spiritual condition, as the advanced wages would improve the material.

Capt. Priske, master of the Erl King, belonging to the Ross Line, of which Messrs. DeWolf & Hammond of this city are agents, is one of the best known shipmasters trading out of this part, and will shortly relinquish command of the Erl King to take charge of a new 5000 ton steamer* of this line about completed by the builders.

The Great London Dock Strike of 1889 ended on September 14th with the workers winning concessions for the majority of their grievances with pay increases becoming effective in November 1889.

Source:  The Times-Democrat from New Orleans, Louisiana, September 22, 1889 (Page 8) via Newspapers.com

* The new steamer referenced in the article is the Maori King which Captain Priske commanded from 1890-1898 plying the waters of a familiar route between London, Australia and New Zealand.

Posted in Family Stories, Life and Times.