John Tully, Silvertown: The lost story of a strike that shook London and helped launch the modern Labor Movement

(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014)

In the long tradition of Marxist historiography, the study of strike actions by the working class has always been a key topic. The occurrence of strikes, both local and national, has been linked to the development of class consciousness in the workplace – where the antagonism of class interests between capital and labour is most acute. One of the founding texts of Marxist sociology, Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), devotes a whole section to the industrial struggles of the emergent working class, emphasizing the importance of strikes:

The incredible frequency of these strikes proves best of all to what extent the social war has broken out all over England…. These strikes, at first skirmishes, sometimes result in weighty struggles; they decide nothing, it is true, but they are the strongest proof that the decisive battle between bourgeoisie and proletariat is approaching . They are the military school of the working-men in which they prepare themselves for the great struggle which cannot be avoided: they are the pronunciamentos of single branches of industry that these too have joined the labour movement.1

The importance of revisiting past strikes lies not only in recovering the often hidden memory of working-class mobilisations, but also in revealing the dynamics of those strikes – whether victorious or not – so as to draw conclusions for future collective action. This is clearly the purpose of John Tully’s study of the great strike of labourers at the Silvertown rubber and electrical factory in London in 1889. Not only is this strike a forgotten chapter in the history of the New Unionism that ultimately gave rise to the modern British labour movement; in addition, the tactics first developed by the employers at Silvertown also “became a blueprint for British union busters to follow” (24).

The pioneering text in this tradition of archival activism is E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963), which clearly served to inspire Tully’s own book. Silvertown also follows in the wake of a similarly radical study of another of the defining industrial struggles from the same period: Sheila Rowbotham’s and Louise Raw’s Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their place in history (2011). Tully’s book is therefore not just a belated tribute to the sacrifice and courage of a group of working people at this turning-point in the British labour movement. It also forms part of an ongoing process of radically committed research and reassessment of the experience of workplace struggle, whose findings remain valid for workers everywhere. The brutal conditions and bitter conflicts of Silvertown are today being reproduced in the new centres of low-paid factory production in China, Bangladesh, Mexico and Indonesia. This attention to workers’ struggles as the most important locus of potential revolutionary transformation is reiterated by David Harvey in his account of the increasing present-day contradictions of global capitalism.2

What was so distinctive about the strike at Silvertown? Why was this defeat of the working class more decisive than the victories of striking London workers that had preceded it? What implications did it have for the subsequent development of the labour movement? These are some of the key questions that Tully seeks to answer in his account of the origins, development and outcome of the Silvertown strike. Not only that. With an eye for telling detail, Tully moves from individual to collective experience in order to bring this pivotal moment in the class struggle in Britain back to life. His narrative of the day-to-day tactical twists and turns of the strike is both dramatic and politically revealing.

The chronology of the Silvertown strike is of fundamental importance. Inspired by the success of the strikes by dockers, gas workers and the matchgirls of East London, hundreds of unskilled labourers at Silver’s rubber and electrical factory came out on strike in September 1889 in an attempt to improve their own working conditions and pay rates. Previously, these unorganised sections of the lower classes had long been the object of social Darwinist contempt, since they represented, it was claimed, a subspecies of feckless poor that were incapable of helping themselves. Even Jack London described the area of Silvertown as the Abyss when he later visited it himself. Tully’s book can therefore be seen in part as a form of writing back at Jack London’s classic work, The People of the Abyss (1902), by providing a very different picture of these people, the poorest of the poor, coming together, mobilising, campaigning, and struggling in solidarity for a better life for themselves and their children, four out of ten of whom died in infancy at this time.

Most significantly, the strike produced its own rank-and-file leaders who made up an independent, thirty-strong action committee, based in the factory. Fred Ling, who worked as a stoker at Silver’s, emerged for example as one of the strike movement’s most eloquent orators and class-conscious leaders, thus giving the lie to the assertion that ordinary working-class people could not become the active agents of their own emancipation. Most certainly, the strike also attracted the solidarity and support of radical socialists and communists seeking to combat the sectarianism of the trade union bureaucrats who refused to support the unskilled workers of Silver’s. One such prominent activist was Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s youngest daughter, who worked tirelessly for the strikers’ cause and succeeded in organising in the Silvertown factory the first ever women’s branch of the National Union of Gas Workers and Gas Labourers. As Tully remarks, “In her first speech at Silvertown, she stressed the necessity for workers’ unity: male and female, skilled and unskilled, of whatever nationality or creed. Marx was extremely popular with the union members of both sexes and they called her ‘Good Old Stoker’, perhaps because of her fiery speeches” (124).

Apart from the reluctance of the leaders of the skilled trade unions to support the unskilled strikers at Silvertown, Tully shows that the other major reason for the ultimate defeat of the strike was the methods used by the employers to break the will of the strikers. It was clear that the previous victories of the dockers and gas workers had alarmed the bourgeoisie, and they were determined to try and stop the forward march of Labour. Not only did the employers absolutely refuse to negotiate with the strikers; scabs were brought in to keep the factory running and hundreds of police were mobilised to harass the strikers and prevent any attempts at picketing. Draconian punishments of strikers were meted out in the courts, and the newspapers whipped up a hysterical anti-strike campaign accusing the workers of being manipulated by outside agitators. It was a ruthless class war in which strikers were faced with the naked violence of the whole state apparatus. By December, almost four months after the start of the conflict, the strikers had been beaten and starved back to work. As Tully concludes:

Silver’s was an enormously powerful firm, backed by the government and police against its ill-fed, ill-paid, ill-housed, ill-medicated, ill-used, ill-educated, and overworked laborers, most of whom could not expect to live long past their thirty-fifth birthdays. The largest rubber, telegraph, and electrical manufacturer in the country, it consistently paid high dividends to shareholders throughout the economic doldrums of the 1870s and `80s, and the depression of the following decade. It could easily have paid the modest wage increases demanded by the laborers. Refusing all offers of mediation, Silver’s won by starving the strikers back to work – and was applauded by the employing class and the political establishment for doing so. (24)

The question begged, however, is why there was such an intransigent campaign on the part of the ruling class to defeat the relatively limited Silvertown strike? The answer Tully gives is sobering. Faced with a growing movement that threatened the very core of their existence, these Victorian capitalists had no hesitation in bringing the full repressive force of the state, the police, the media and gangs of strike-breaking thugs to crush the workers, whom they succeeded in isolating, terrorising and finally defeating. It is a lesson in the indispensability of working-class unity, organisation and a militant class-conscious leadership that is as relevant today as it was then.

In the Preface, Tully makes his own position clear both as a writer and researcher: “Historians must always be scrupulous with the facts, but we should be deeply suspicious of claims that studies of human society can be ‘value free’. History has always been a discipline bristling with debates. Though we should never twist, omit, or invent facts, we should be frank about our biases” (23). Silvertown is without doubt history with a radical heart; it is partisan and political, with a burning rage against oppression and a passion for liberation. The book not only illuminates a crucial but previously neglected battle in the struggle for working-class emancipation; it also urges us to take up and continue that fight.

Reviewed by Ronald Paul
University of Gothenburg
Gothenburg, Sweden
ronald.paul@eng.gu.se

Notes

1. Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (London: Panther Books, 1969), 250-1.

2. David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (London: Profile Books, 2014), 65.

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