The rebels who brought London to a standstill


In the summer of 1889, the Great Dock Strike brought London's East End to a standstill. The East London News complained that "coal men; match girls; parcels postmen; car men… employees in jam, biscuit, rope, iron, screw, clothing and railway works," had found "some grievance, real and imaginary", to down tools as well. It declared the area "infected with strike fever".

The clothing workers' grievances were anything but "imaginary". They slaved in sweatshops 14 to 18 hours a day, six days a week, many working for piece rates rather than regular wages. Their strike committee, based at the White Hart pub in Greenfield Street (now Greenfield Road), Whitechapel, issued leaflets demanding a 12-hour day with off-premises breaks for tea and dinner, trade union rates for government work on military clothing, and an end to giving workers additional work to finish overnight.

Their rebellion, supported by 8,000 workers, was remarkable, as most strikers were recent Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire still acclimatising to London ways. Their bosses - often neighbours and relatives from the same towns and villages in the old country - blamed low wages on pressure from the powerful City and West End clothing firms who supplied their orders.

The prominent role immigrant workers played in campaigns for better lives in London, whether they were Jews from Russia, Irish match-workers and dockers, or pioneering Indian and Caribbean activists, was a recurring theme as I researched my new book, Rebel Footprints: A Guide to London's Radical History. Many indigenous workers had been so ground down by decades of exploitation that they had lost hope, but immigrants revitalised their fighting spirit.

Those who arrived in Britain - as Jews did from Tsarist Russia-fleeing situations of discrimination and persecution, had a heightened sense of their rights to equality and freedom. Any suspicion and hostility they encountered in their new home merely strengthened their resolve to struggle for change.

In telling the story of London's radicals, rebels and dreamers I have tried to spread greater awareness of the outstanding efforts of immigrants among them.

Impoverished Jewish immigrant workers had already shown their capacity for militant action in March 1889, when 3,000 of them marched on Chief Rabbi Adler's Duke Street synagogue, having asked him to deliver a sermon on sweated labour, unemployment and the demand for an eight-hour day. Adler refused and absented himself. There were ugly confrontations with the police near the synagogue, and later on in Whitechapel.

Their march had started in Berner Street (now Henriques Street) outside the International Workers Education Club, an institution established by a Lithuanian Jewish anarchist called William Wess and fellow immigrant Jewish radicals. They printed agitational propaganda on-site and published a weekly newspaper, Arbeter Fraynd (Workers' Friend). This newspaper held a mirror to the immigrant workers. It reflecting their harsh daily lives but also told them that they could become agents of change.

Wess was Secretary of the Tailors' Strike Committee that called sweatshop workers out in August 1889. The Chair was Lewis Lyons, son of German Jewish immigrants. Lyons had worked in tailoring from the age of 11. Both Lyons and Wess built links with local non-Jewish campaigners in the area through William Morris's Socialist League, and Freedom, an anarchist collective.

The Master Tailors attempted to starve employees back to work as the strike committee struggled to sustain the idle workers' families. Four weeks into the dispute, the strike fund was so depleted that cutters, pressers and basters faced the prospect of returning to work having gained nothing. The committee made one final effort to replenish the fund. A delegation headed to the Wade Arms pub in Poplar, home of the Docks Strike Committee. The dockers were largely of Irish Catholic heritage and had little contact with Jews. Their leader was Ben Tillett, a talented union organiser but a xenophobe. He had described Jewish immigrants as the "dregs and scum of the continent" who made overcrowded slums more "putrid and congested".

Despite Tillett's antipathy, the Docks Strike Committee donated £100 -– the largest single subscription the tailors received. With the strike fund refreshed, the employers now became increasingly anxious and, in early October, they caved in. Solidarity from Irish Catholic dockers resulted in victory for immigrant Jewish tailors.

That cross-communal solidarity was cemented two months later, when a Federation of East London Labour Unions was launched at Mile End's Great Assembly Hall. That union was severely tested in the troubled early years of the 20th century as thousands of factory workers and local unemployed were won to a populist anti-immigrant organisation called the British Brothers League (BBL), led by local Tory MPs Major William Evans-Gordon and Samuel Forde West.

Jewish activists formed an Alien's Defence League that held public meetings countering the BBL's propaganda. Their more long-term response was to build their own secular institutions to strengthen immigrant Jewish working class lives, such as the Jubilee Street Club and Workers Institute in 1906 and the Arbeter Ring in 1909.

These radical initiatives, built from the grassroots, often put them in conflict with more conservative elements in the Jewish community but they provided sustenance and hope to all who used them.

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