Back in 1893, this April weekend marked a historic low point in labour relations across the British Isles – in particular in Hull with the Shipping Federation bringing in non-union labour to break the unions on the docks. Things had become violent with Hansard recording a debate in Parliament on the use of guns by non-union - blackleg or scab - labour in the port of Hull.
From 1890, the Shipping Federation – implacably opposed to maritime unions - had been using strong arm tactics to remove new unionism out of the British ports. Offering preferential employment for non-union workers through the NFLA (National Free Labour Association) Labour Exchanges.
Because of the nature of dock work – highly seasonal and in Hull especially so because of the Baltic ports being frozen over in winter - this was a real threat to the Union. There was always a surplus of labour available and allowing non union labour posed a serious threat.
As the industrial revolution transformed the British Isles, labour relations changed utterly. Traditional craft unions had long been conciliatory and been reticent to include what they regarded as non-skilled work on the docks, the railways and at sea.
New Unionism emerged as a more militant movement representative of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. We cannot underestimate the threat that New Unionism represented for the status quo. According to the London Times, the New Unions were exerting a “tyranny” over workers who wished to negotiate their own contractual arrangements.
Fast forward to Hull in April 1893 – the start of a seven week stand off between the Shipping Federation and the Unions. There is an irony in this because C.H. Wilson of the biggest shipping firm in the City, had presided over a meeting convened by Ben Tillett to set up a Hull branch of the dockers union. Wilson saw himself as a benevolent despot and, as a Liberal MP, sympathetic to the working man.
April was a month when Keir Hardy – who had won the parliamentary seat for West Ham South as an independent candidate in 1892 – harried the Government front bench for five weeks with question after question on events at Hull. He asked Asquith, Home Secretary, to explain why the military was being used to support emloyers in breaking up the union; why soldiers were being used to load and unload vessels. Hardie exposed the fact that of thirty nine local magistrates 19 wre shareholders in ships and four were ship owners. The power of local magistrates over strike action was seen across the country – especially in South Wales coal mine disputes where, again, their links to owners was clear. Never before had a strike taken up so much parliamentary time.
Months passed and, when dockers refused to unload three barges because one of the crew was not in the union, Wilson turned. He had been continually harassed by fresh demands and believed that he would cease to be “master of his own business” if he didn’t make a stand against the Union. As illustrated in the Graphic magazine, the Wilson Line were compelled to use their clerks to unload the SS Juno and, as matters deteriorated, serious rioting took place.
Again, the London Times reported that "the police were compelled to charge the crowd repeatedly and used their batons freely, in order to disperse the assemblies of strikers and sympathisers". In those fights many persons on each side were injured, and several arrests made.
On April 24th Victoria dock – a specialist timber facility since 1850 – was plagued by five fires. Huge timber stacks in the docks over an area of 8 acres were set on fire on Sunday, but the police, aided by a, detachment of blue-jackets and marines from gunboats lying at anchor on the Humber managed to quell the flames. Bailey and Leetham's engine works at Hull was destroyed by the fire which was caused by the strikers. A hotel close by was burned down as well. The damage was estimated at over £1,000,000 (£115 million in 2016 values).
The plot thickens. It was discovered that “free labourers” or black leg labour on the dock had been drinking contaminated coffee and, as the fires raged, a dock hose was found to have been broken and the owners of the stacks of timber set on fire had taken sides with the Shipping Federation.
Across the city, attempts were made to obstruct trains and there was an attempt to blow up a bridge on the Hull and Barnsley line in the town. A wagonette of free labourers was heavily stoned on Osbourne Street near Paragon Station and women carried stones from road works in their aprons fro men to use as ammunition. Fires were discovered in other parts of the docks, but they were quickly extinguished.
On the other hand, union members felt let down by their London brothers and, across Hull, felt that the Shipping interest conditioned the magistrates, the watch committee and the Guardians – all used as a means of control. Dock workers and their families survived on tick and when credit ran out and poor backing across the country to the stand off raised little money, it was all over.
In terms of labour relations, some would say that it took the shortage of labour caused by the Boer War call to arms for the unions to regain the upper hand but that is another story beyond the scope of this post.