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.

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