Silvertown: A review

When workers resist capital’s relentless accumulation of more capital, the fight is more important than the outcome. Workers may lose the fight, but without fighting, there’s no chance of winning.

Those who fight and lose deserve as much attention as those who fight and win.

Historian John Tully in his latest book Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike That Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labor Movement (Monthly Review Press) calls attention to a forgotten lost strike.

Silvertown tells the story  of 12-week strike by laborers at the Silver family’s India-Rubber, Gutta-Percha & Telegraph Works, a massive factory located in London’s East End working class slum of Silvertown, named after the factory’s owners.

The strike at Silver’s India-Rubber, which took place during the fall of 1898 and involved 3,000 workers, was an important event in the long struggle to improve working class life in Britain, but it was also a crushing defeat for the workers and the nascent labor movement that supported the strike.

Because it was a lost cause, argues Tully, the Silvertown strike became a lost memory.

The recovery of this lost memory is important, writes Tully, because the Silvertown strike was “a pivot point in the (English) class warfare” and an important chapter in the history of the New Unionism movement that “was to change the face of British society.”

The New Unionism movement, which emerged in late 19th Century Britain, sought to unite workers along industrial rather than craft lines and was led by working class socialists.

In the Silvertown strike, New Unionism was up against a formidable opponent. Silver’s India-Rubber was a highly profitable firm that regularly distributed its rapidly accumulating wealth to a small clique of well-connected shareholders.

The wages of Silver’s workers, however, barely kept them alive.

Life in Silvertown, the slum where most Silver’s workers lived, was grim. The average life span for a Silvertown male was 35 years; the infant mortality rate was comparable to today’s most backward Third World country; and hunger was as prevalent as the stench from the open sewers that served as the slum’s sanitation system.

After witnessing, the successful strike of nearby dock workers, the unskilled and semi-skilled laborers at Silver’s spontaneously walked off the job when Silver’s boss, Matthew Gray, rescinded a promised pay increase.

The workers had reason to believe that their strike could win.

A year earlier, women workers, the matchstick girls as the were called, at the Bryant & May match factory had won a strike, and workers at the Beckton Gasworks had struck and won a shorter workday with no loss in pay.

The Beckton strike led to the formation of the National Union of Gasworkers & General Laborers (NUG&GW) under the leadership of Will Thorne, who played a key role in the Silvertown strike. The NUG&GW was the union that the Silvertown workers joined after the strike began.

For 12 weeks the Silvertown strikers battled the company, scabs, police, the courts, hunger, and the biting cold of an early winter, but in the end returned to work with nothing to show for their effort.

Tully uses primary and secondary sources from both sides to reconstruct the important events of the strike.

What we learn from these sources is that the Silvertown strike was a turning point for both capital and labor.

Capital prior to the strike was on the defensive. Strikes like those of the matchstick girls and dock workers had the support of public opinion because writers like Friedrich Engels had exposed the terrible conditions under which workers worked and lived.

Capitalists themselves were divided. For example, during the dock workers strike, some London merchants supported the workers because of the merchants’ antipathy toward the stevedoring companies that controlled the movement of merchandise.

But the Silvertown strike changed all that.

Gray engineered an effective public relations campaign that spread misinformation about the strikers.

The result was that public opinion lined up against the strikers. Middle-class public opinion would continue to oppose labor for decades.

Sensing that the working class was getting out of control, capital united behind Gray and his get-tough approach toward the strikers.

Gray’s formula for dealing with the strike–refusing to bargain with workers, lining up public opinion to support him, and a well-organized effort to recruit scabs en masse from the countryside–was the template that British capital used to put down strikes in the decades that followed.

Gray’s victory at Silvertown badly weakened the New Unionism. Membership in the NUG&GM declined sharply in the 1890s because of a severe Depression and because of capital’s aggressive anti-unionism, inspired by the defeat at Silvertown.

But while the immediate result for labor was a turn for the worst, the Silvertown strike had long-term consequences that helped New Unionism grow into a powerful, progressive force that improved the lives of workers.

For one thing, the Silvertown strike made it clear that nothing could be gained by appealing to officials in the established political parties.

Strike supporters tried to no avail to enlist the help of both Liberal and Tory party leaders to get Gray to bargain with the workers.

If workers wanted justice, they would have to get it by building a their own source of power, a working class movement built on the principle of solidarity.

The role that the state played in suppressing the strike also made it clear that workers needed their own political movement to advance their class interests.

The police, who prior to the strike had adopted the facade of neutral enforcer of the law, dropped the facade and assaulted and arrested picketing strikers. The court validated the police action by sentencing arrested strikers to harsh jail sentences.

Gradually the political movement that the Silvertown strike helped to found took control of some working class communities turning slums into livable neighborhoods.

The Silvertown strike also helped develop working class leaders such as Thorne, Eleanor Marx, Frederick Ling, Peter Curran and others who played important roles in transforming New Unionism into a powerful political force.

The immediate impact of the Silvertown strike was tragic. More than 200 workers were blacklisted for their strike activities. Those who returned to work won nothing for the 12 weeks of sacrifice.

But in the long run, Silvertown was an important episode in the story of progress made possible by the rise of a powerful labor movement, For that reason, it deserves to be remembered.


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