Book Review: ‘Silvertown- The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labour Movement’

Silvertown by John Tully

Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labour Movement by John Tully

Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labour Movement. Tully, John. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2014.

“Silvertown’s workers and their families were not just passive victims of the industrial system. They were flesh-and-blood human beings who sorrowed and hoped, swore and fought, loved and hated, enjoyed themselves when they could at pub knees-ups or their teetotal equivalents, dreamed of a better life for their children, and bore adversity with simple stoicism and very Cockney, Irish-influenced, irreverent and ironic sense of humor.”

(Tully, 2014; p. 83)

The above quote epitomises John Tully’s approach in Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labour Movement. Tully tells the story of this once-forgotten strike without losing sight of the human element. Thoroughly researched and well-written, this book about British labour history, written by an Australian for an American audience is a valuable addition to labour movement literature.

Silvertown is an industrial area in the London borough of Newham north of the Thames. It is dominated by the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery, but the area was named after Silver’s India-Rubber, Gutta-Percha and Telegraph Works that opened in 1852, when the area was little more than marshland. In September 1888, the workers at the Silver Works went out on strike when they were denied a pay rise. The bitter dispute lasted for 3 months before the workers reluctantly returned to work at their original levels of pay- those that weren’t blacklisted, anyway.

The Silvertown Strike was part of a wave of strikes and organisation in the 1880s that is now known as New Unionism. For the first time, semi-skilled and unskilled workers were unionising, and unlike the more established craft unions, they had socialist leanings and were willing to take militant action. Silvertown was not the only strike that has been left out of the dominant narrative of New Unionism, Louise Raw’s excellent book Striking a Light attempts to give the 1888 Bryant and May Matchwomens’ strike the place it deserves in labour history. Silvertown contributes to the constant process of reassessment that is so important for academic research.

There are any number of reasons why a strike or protest might be left out of the history books, and in the case of Silvertown it is probably because the strikers lost. After 3 months of hunger, picketing, marches and victimisation, the strikers were forced back to work. Tully does an excellent job of analysing why the strike did not succeed. His attention to detail is admirable- he even researched the weather conditions during the strike in order to consider the impacts the weather might have had on the strikers’ resolve. Despite the loss, Tully argues that the strike was a turning point in New Unionism, not least because the merciless tactics used by the owners of Silver’s rubber and electrical plant became a blue print for any employer trying to break a strike.

There are some gaps in the story- for example Tully has few sources that detail what the factory managers were thinking during the strike, so he has to make a few educated guesses. To be fair however, Tully always makes it clear that they are educated guesses, and he cannot use sources that don’t exist. Tully also uses too many sub-headings for my liking, which makes the text feels disjointed and awkward, but this is a minor criticism.

John Tully balances considered analysis with descriptive writing that conveys the more emotive, human aspects of the Silvertown strike. Not only is Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labour Movement a fantastic piece of scholarly research, it is also an enjoyable read, two qualities that don’t always go hand in hand.

Turbulent Londoners: Eleanor Marx, 1855-1898

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The next Turbulent Londoner is Eleanor Marx, a socialist campaigner and translator, and close friend of Clementina Black


Eleanor Marx was an inspirational socialist campaigner (Source: Marxists.org).

Eleanor Marx was an inspirational socialist campaigner (Source: Marxists.org).

Eleanor Marx was the youngest daughter of Karl Marx, one of the most famous political revolutionaries of all time. She managed to cause quite a stir in her own right however, and her achievements deserve to be recognised. She was a socialist activist and translator, but also worked as a teacher and carer for her ailing parents during her short life; she was only 43 when she committed suicide.

Unsurprisingly because of her family, Eleanor took an interest in politics at a young age. The execution of the Manchester Martyrs when she was 12 years old in 1867 sparked her lifelong support for the Fenians. She must have been very intelligent, because at just 16 she became her father’s secretary, travelling with him to socialist conferences around the world. In 1872 she met and fell in love with Hippolyte Lissagaray, a member of the failed Paris Commune living in exile in London. She helped him write a history of the 1871 commune and translated it, but ended in the relationship in 1882, not long after her father finally agreed to approve the match (Lissagaray was 17 years older than Eleanor).

Her father must have trusted her judgement, because after his death in 1883 he charged Eleanor with publishing his unfinished manuscripts and the English translation of Capital, his most famous work. Her political career did not die with her father however, and in 1884 she joined, and was elected to the executive of, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). Later that same year she became a founding member of the Socialist League after splits within the SDF, although she later rejoined the SDF the year before she died.

Also in 1884, Eleanor became heavily involved in the Women’s Trade Union League, supporting numerous strikes over the following decade. In 1889 she helped women at a plant in Silvertown form one of the first female branches of a union. The National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers (NUG&GL) was one of the first trade unions to admit female members. She was a firm believer in participation in political campaigns, a view that frequently alienated her from the majority of the Socialist League. She backed up her beliefs with action too, for example she was present in Trafalgar Square during Bloody Sunday in 1887. Known as compelling speaker, she campaigned tirelessly for workers rights and international solidarity. She also wrote numerous books and articles during this period, and took up acting- she believed the arts were a powerful socialist and feminist tool, and even learnt Norwegian just so she could translate the works of playwright Henrik Ibsen into English.

Eleanor Marx with Edward Aveling and William Liebknecht in 1886 (Source: Wikipedia).

Eleanor Marx with Edward Aveling and William Liebknecht in 1886 (Source: Wikipedia).

In 1885 she helped to organise the International Socialist Congress in Paris, and the following year she toured America with German socialist Wilhelm Liebknecht and Edward Aveling, raising money for the German Social Democratic Party. Eleanor met Aveling, a prominent British Marxist, when she joined the SDF, and she spent the rest of her life with him.

Eleanor Marx poisoned herself on 31 March 1898. It is not known for sure why, but members of the British socialist community blamed Aveling, as Eleanor had found out that he married a young actress in secret the previous year. Her ashes were kept by various socialist organisations over the years, including the SDF, the British Socialist Party, and the Communist Party of Great Britain, before eventually being buried with her family at Highgate in 1956. This tribute, whilst bizarre, demonstrates just how much she meant to the socialist community in Britain.

Eleanor Marx’s life was full of relationships with well known, radical men, but her life was not defined by them. She was an influential campaigner in her own right, and successfully made her own mark on a political landscape that was still very much dominated by males. She has my admiration and respect not only because she spoke several languages (I have enough trouble with English!) but also because she made her own name, and didn’t just rely on those of the men in her life.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. ‘Datei:Wilhelm Liebknecht Edward Aveling und Eleanor Marx Aveling 1886.jpeg,’ Wikipedia. No date, accessed 17 March 2015.  http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:Wilhelm_Liebknecht_Edward_Aveling_und_Eleanor_Marx_Aveling_1886.jpeg

Anon. ‘Eleanor Marx,’ Wikipedia. Last modified 30 January 2015, accessed 17 March 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleanor_Marx

Anon. ‘Eleanor Marx,’ Socialist Party. No date, accessed 17 March 2015. http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/socialistwomen/sw12.htm

Anon. ‘Eleanor Marx,’ Spartacus Educational. No date, accessed 17 March 2015. http://spartacus-educational.com/Wmarx.htm

Blunden, Andy. ‘Eleanor Marx,’ marxists.org. No date, accessed 17 March 2015. https://www.marxists.org/archive/eleanor-marx/

Tully, John. Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labour Movement. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2014.

Tracing Turbulent London in North East England 2: Jarrow

Jarrow is in Tyneside, the name of the conurbation surrounding the river Tyne. Newcastle is also part of it (Photo: Graeme Awcock)

Jarrow is in Tyneside, the name of the conurbation surrounding the river Tyne. Newcastle is also part of it (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

As a national and imperial centre London is, and has long been, a key node in a whole range of networks involving the circulation of ideas, people, and materials. This fact was brought home to me recently when I visited the North East of England. Even though I was about 300 miles away from London, I found multiple connections to Turbulent London. Last week, I wrote about the grave of Emily Wilding Davison, a suffragette from Northumberland who died at the Epsom Derby in 1913. This week, I will be thinking about the ways that the 1936 Jarrow Marchers have been memorialised in their home town in Tyneside.

Jarrow is a small town, with a population of around 30,000. During the industrial revolution the town experienced massive growth thanks to heavy industries like coal mining and shipbuilding. The Palmer’s Shipbuilding and Iron Company shipyard was established there in 1852, and went on to employ as much as 80% of the town’s working population. This dependence on one employer meant that the town was devastated when the shipyard closed in 1933. Unemployment and poverty was rife, setting the stage for the Jarrow March, sometimes called the Jarrow Crusade.

The Jarrow Crusade was a type of protest called a Hunger March. Beginning in the 1920s, groups of demonstrators (normally men) would embark on long marches to London in order to draw attention to issues of poverty, unemployment, and hunger. On the 5th of October 1936, around 200 men set off from Jarrow carrying a petition asking the British government to re-establish industry in the town. 26 days later the men arrived in London, 282 miles away. The House of Commons accepted the petition, but did not debate it. Although they were immediately unsuccessful, the marchers helped develop the attitudes that paved the way for social reform after World War Two.

When I went to Jarrow I found 3 memorials to the Marchers. If you arrive via Tyneside’s Metro train system from the direction of Newcastle and look across to the other platform you will see The Jarrow March, by Vince Rea, unveiled by Neil Kinnock in 1984.

'The Jarrow March' by artist Vince Rea at Jarrow Metro Station.

The Jarrow March by artist Vince Rea at Jarrow Metro Station.

IMG_0061

The Jarrow March is one of the first things you see when you step off the train at Jarrow Metro Station.

Walking out of the station towards the town centre you have to walk through an underpass, one of several which is decorated with images made up of painted tiles celebrating the town’s history. One of these mosaics shows the Jarrow Marchers.

The image showing the Jarrow March in a local underpass.

The image showing the Jarrow March in a local underpass. A list of the places which the marchers passed through is included on the right.

IMG_0053

Like most underpasses, it is not the most pleasant place.

Finally, if you walk through the Viking Shopping Centre to the Morrisons Supermarket you will see the life-size bronze sculpture Spirit of Jarrow. The sculpture was commissioned by Morrisons, made by Graham Ibbeson, and named by 2 local residents. The marchers are depicting walking out of the frame of a ship, surrounded by scattered tools. It was unveiled in 2001, marking the 65th anniversary of the March. As in Morpeth, the varying ages of the memorials demonstrate that commemoration is an ongoing process, it has to be constantly renewed and maintained.

The Spirit of Jarrow is outside the local supermarket, very close to the town centre.

The Spirit of Jarrow is outside the local supermarket, very close to the town centre.

The statue in more detail.

The statue in more detail.

This plaque in the floor near the statue gives information about it.

This plaque in the floor near the statue gives information about it.

Although each representation of the Jarrow March uses a different medium, the content is very similar. All 3 show male marchers in flat caps, the ‘Jarrow Crusade’ banner, and a dog- Paddy the dog was apparently the marchers’ mascot. The fact that there are so many representations of the March within a small area suggests that this is an event that the local community are proud of.

A close up of one of the male marchers in Spirit of Jarrow. He is wearing a flat cap. stereotypical of the working class

A close up of one of the male marchers in Spirit of Jarrow. He is wearing a flat cap, stereotypical of the working class, and a badge declaring the marchers’ intention to march on London.

When comparing these memorials to the grave of Emily Wilding Davison, what really struck me was the difference that location makes. Emily is buried in a churchyard- out of the way, quiet and sedate. You have to consciously decide to go and visit, and for me it felt a little like a pilgrimage. In Jarrow, the memorials are part of the everyday infrastructure of the town and, like a lot of public art, they run the risk of fading into the background. When asking for directions whilst looking for the Spirit of Jarrow, one local woman had no idea what we were talking about. If you travel the same route everyday, you frequently stop noticing what is around you.

Another striking element of the Jarrow memorials was their representations of gender. Both The Jarrow March and the Spirit of Jarrow include a women carrying what appears to be a baby. The only woman permitted to join the march was local MP Ellen Wilkinson, and she only marched sections of the route. No children took part either. The memorials present the March as being more inclusive than it actually was. It is a reminder not to take memorials and other similar representations at face value.

The female marcher in the Spirit of Jarrow carrying a bundle that is probably a baby.

The female marcher in the Spirit of Jarrow carrying a bundle that is probably a baby.

The proliferation of Hunger Marches as a method of protest in the 1920s and 30s linked London to provincial Britain in a clear way, and the Jarrow March was no exception. Despite being almost 300 miles away, the people of Jarrow decided that London was where they needed to be in order to get their voices heard. London was, and still is, the political heart of Britain, and as such it interacts with the rest of the country in a whole range of complex and interconnecting ways.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Jarrow Crusade Captured in Bronze.” BBC News. Last modified 5th October 2001, accessed 10th August 2015. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/1581572.stm

Anon. “Jarrow March.” Wikipedia. Last modified 29th July 2015, accessed 10th August 2015.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jarrow_March

Colette, Christine. “The Jarrow Crusade.” BBC History. Last modified 3rd March 2011, accessed 10th August 2015.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/britain_wwone/jarrow_01.shtml

Tracing Turbulent London in North East England 1: Morpeth

Morpeth is a picturesque market town in the South of Northumberland. Emily Wilding Davison is one of the most famous Morpethians.

Morpeth is a picturesque market town in the South of Northumberland. Emily Wilding Davison is one of the most famous Morpethians.

Last week, I wrote about the importance of networks for understanding protest in London. As a national and imperial centre London is, and has long been, a key node in a whole range of networks involving the circulation of ideas, people, and materials. This fact was brought home to me recently when I visited the North East of England. Even though I was about 300 miles away from London, I found multiple connections to Turbulent London.

Morpeth is the county town of Northumberland. Situated on a crossing point of the river Wansbeck, the town has a long history, but I am more interested in one of it’s most famous residents. The suffragette Emily Wilding Davison came from Morpeth, and is buried there. Her grave in St. Mary the Virgin Church is visited frequently, and Davison House in the town centre has been painted purple in her honour.

Emily Wilding Davison in buried in the Davison family plot in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin.

Emily Wilding Davison in buried in the Davison family plot in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin in Morpeth (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Davison House in the centre of Morpeth also honours Emily. It is painted purple, and includes a mural, a plaque, and pictures of Emily inside.

Davison House in the centre of Morpeth also honours Emily. It is painted purple, and includes a mural, a plaque, and pictures of Emily inside (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Emily Wilding Davison is arguably one of the most famous suffragettes. Born in 1872, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1906, and began working for them full time in 1909. She became increasingly militant, and was often arrested for causing a public disturbance. She was imprisoned nine times, during which she was force-fed; almost drowned when a guard filled her cell with water; and threw herself down a 10-metre iron staircase in protest at the practice of force-feeding. She also spent a night hidden in a cupboard in the House of Commons so she could list it as her place of residence in the 1911 census.

Despite all this, Emily is probably best known for the way she died. At the Epson Derby on the 4th of June 1913, she ran out in front of the King’s horse. She was trampled, and died in the 8th of June from her injuries. Controversy has raged ever since about whether or not she intended to commit suicide, but it seems most likely that she was just trying to attach a suffragette scarf to the horse’s reins. She became a martyr for the suffragette cause and was buried in Morpeth on the 15th of June.

Morpeth certainly is proud of Emily. As well as Davison House and her grave, she is mentioned in the Tourist Information Centre as a ‘local hero’. Davison House, in Sanderson shopping arcade, was only renamed and painted in March this year. A cynic might say this was an attempt to draw visitors into the town centre (St. Mary’s Church is on the outskirts). Whatever the reason, it was getting attention from passers-by when I visited, and anything that raises the profile of lesser-known historical activists is great as far as I’m concerned.

Emily Wilding Davison is included as one of Morpeth's 'local heroes' on the walls of the Tourist Information Centre.

Emily Wilding Davison is included as one of Morpeth’s ‘local heroes’ on the walls of the Tourist Information Centre (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The artwork in Davison House, by  Jan Szymczuk.

The artwork in Davison House, by Jan Szymczuk (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Pictures of Emily Wilding Davison on the walls in the stairwell of Davison House.

Pictures of Emily Wilding Davison on the walls in the stairwell of Davison House (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I found visiting Emily’s grave more moving than I expected it to be. She is buried in the Davison family plot, which is surrounded by a green railing; as well as the family headstone there are other, more recent memorials to Emily. The space clearly means a lot of people; messages and ribbons in the suffragette colours have been attached to the railings by previous visitors. In this way, the grave acts as a focus for both official and unofficial forms of remembrance and commemoration. Both the unofficial and unofficial are being constantly renewed- the grave was restored in 2008, a new plaque was added on the centenary of Emily’s funeral in 2013, and some ribbons and messages were more weathered than others.

The text on Emily's headstone includes the suffragette's motto 'Deeds Not Words.'

The text on Emily’s headstone includes the suffragette’s motto ‘Deeds Not Words’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A message of thanks attached to the railings by a representative of  Trentham National(?) Women's

A message of thanks attached to the railings by a representative of Trentham National Women’s Register in 2013 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

IMG_9747

A plaque added to the grave on the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison’s death in 2013. Emily is called ‘A True Daughter of Northumberland’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

One of the most recent messages was also one of the most touching. The message, dated the 19th of December 2014 memorialises Katrina Dawson, who was killed in the Sydney Siege a few days before. It explains that the Dawson family were close to Emily Wilding Davison’s descendants; Emily didn’t marry or have children, but one of her relatives must have emigrated to Australia. The message says that Emily would have approved of Katrina’s actions. This shows that, for many, Emily Wilding Davison is a a role model, someone to look up to and be inspired by. This is not something I had thought about before, but the shrine-like quality of the grave made it hard to miss.

One of the most recent unofficial messages left at the gravesite made a connection between Emily and the actions of a woman killed in the 2014 'Sydney Siege.'

One of the most recent unofficial messages left at the gravesite made a connection between Emily and the actions of a woman killed in the 2014 ‘Sydney Siege’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Even now, a century after her death, Emily Wilding Davison is remembered with admiration and gratitude. Morpeth is proud of her, and not just because of power to draw in tourists. As ‘A True Daughter of Northumberland’ she embodies qualities which the county as whole want to be known for (Northumbrians are also very proud of Grace Darling, the daughter of a lighthouse keeper who conducted a daring rescue of shipwrecked sailors during a storm in 1838). Emily also forms a connection between Morpeth and London, 300 miles away, demonstrating just how far the networks of protest interlacing the capital reach.

Next week I will be writing about the memorials in Tyneside to the Jarrow Marchers, who marched from Tyneside to London in 1936.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. ‘The Grave of Emily Wilding Davison’ More in Morpeth. No date, accessed 30th August 2015. http://www.moreinmorpeth.co.uk/visit/the-grave-of-emily-wilding-davison

Smith, Anna. ‘Emily Davison Tribute Planned in Morpeth.’ Morpeth Herald. Last modified 10th March 2015, accessed 30th August 2015. http://www.morpethherald.co.uk/news/emily-davison-tribute-planned-in-morpeth-1-7149312