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Sunday, 26 January 2020

The strike of 1889




THE STRIKE OF 1889

The gas workers’ ‘strike’ of 1889 is a turning point in this whole story of George Livesey. In a period of six weeks or so he turned from being the hero of gas manufacture in London and a champion of local people into a major baddie.  There have been a number of books – and endless agitprop events – where he is sometimes portrayed as the top hatted capitalist, the strike breaker, the enemy of the working class.   The ‘strike’ has also been put forward as part of movement and formation of the ‘new unions’ – as following on from the dock strike of the summer of 1889 it was assumed that gas stokers were casual and previously unorganized, like the dock workers.[1]

So – what do we know about it and what appears to have actually happened.

In June 1889.managers at individual London gas works were approached on the subject of the eight hour day by Union representatives. Delegates from the Old Kent Road and Rotherhithe works reported to the Gas Workers Union delegate meetings. They said that at Rotherhithe they had been received favourably by management but they were told it was ‘not thought that eight hours would be possible at the moment - men were scarce’.   At Old Kent Road things were more encouraging - they were reported that they were received favourably and told they must act in a straightforward manner. Delegates from other companies had sometimes done less well - at Poplar works they had been 'talked to like a lot of babies in long clothes'. [2]

On 19th June the South Met. Board minuted that a deputation of men had attended the old offices to discuss petitions concerning the eight hour day and on 26th June a notice went up at the various works of the company announcing possible changes in the shift system and asking men at each works to decide among themselves which system - eight or twelve hours - would be preferred by a majority of men there. [3]

The Company said that working practices would be made as universal as possible throughout the company although this might mean lost privileges at some works since the company was still rationalising working practice between the three amalgamated companies. It was also made a condition that regular men would in future be required to give a month's notice to leave.

Justice reported on this solution at the South Met. with satisfaction and as 'crowned with success'- and noted that men working the eight hour day would also receive an unasked for pay rise.[4] This regularisation of working practice was probably not unwelcome to the company but the institution of the eight hour day throughout meant a considerable expenditure on increased wages and additional workers.

Throughout the rest of the summer and early autumn of 1889 the union continued its programme of local meetings - including some within South Met.'s area but attention was in the main focused on the concurrent dock strike. In the works the Union concentrated on recruitment - Livesey later reported to the Proprietors that 'a determination was shown to persuade, and if that failed to compel, every man in the Company's service to join the Union’.[5]

Livesey reported that on the 5th September the Union had written to the Company saying that 'in effect' only Union members would be allowed to work.  Following this letter some stokers were sacked at Vauxhall and a mass meeting of retort house workers was held there. Livesey said that strike notices were handed in at most of the works before a meeting could be arranged. [6]

However Labour Elector reported that "Mr. Livesey stated his willingness to recognise the Union and apologised for some remarks made in a speech of his." [7]A week later they published an agreement signed by both management and Union. It stated that the Company would not interfere with Union men by consequence of their membership and that in the same way the Gas Workers Union would not interfere with non-Union men. This agreement was hailed as a victory.[8] But a fortnight later they reported that 'in the excitement of the moment …. an important clause had been omitted from the agreement’. This was the clause was on which victory should have been based – it gave the Union rights of recruitment and to refuse to work with non-union labour.[9]

Will Thorne hailed 'the re-instatement of the men at Vauxhall as a demonstration of the strength of the union.[10]

On 11th September the South Met. Directors minuted that: 'the Union and its members cannot be recognised and will not be allowed to interfere with the conduct of the company's business. Also non-union men will be preferred and protected against intimidation'. They then began to make preparations for a siege in anticipation of a future strike.

Livesey reported "at every station buildings available for sleeping accommodation were inspected and arrangements were made to supplement any deficiency with Humphery’s iron buildings and in addition six steamers were provisionally chartered and a contract was made with Messrs. McWhirter to provide bedsteads and bedding - advertisements were printed and the Chairman called upon the Chief Commissioner of Police.[11] Labour Elector noted carpenters and joiners fitting up beds and a dining room, and agents being despatched to different parts of the country to procure men.[12]

The Union continued to hold mass meetings and demonstrations. South London Press reported a meeting on Peckham Rye with banners from Rotherhithe and Bankside in support of the dock strike and in order to campaign for an eight hour day.[13] Meetings reported in the South Met.'s area were mostly held on Peckham Rye or in Deptford Broadway - there seems to have been very little in Greenwich. Some meetings were held in Woolwich but these were to attract workers from the Government owned works in the Arsenal. In early October the Union began to press for double time on Sundays.  

On 4th November representatives of the London gas company managements met Union officers at the Cannon Street Hotel.[14] George Livesey did not attend but South Met. was represented by his brother Frank – then Manager at Old Kent Road. The meeting proceeded to some measure of agreement - both sides saw the need for recreation for the workforce and it was agreed that it was difficult to reduce the workforce on Sundays when demand for gas was peaking.  The Union representatives agreed to ask members to consider some reduced hours and double pay in return for a shorter working day and the meeting broke up to re-convene a week later.

Meanwhile - and the exact date is a matter of who and what you believe - Livesey introduced his profit sharing scheme. In later years he gave various dramatic accounts of this. He had been in Eastbourne, with his wife, and thought to walk the last stretch back. He crossed Pepys Hill, and thought what a fine public park it would make.[15] Then he reached the works and was told that the union had given them until 4 p.m. for an answer. 'I had not thought out anything and I cannot explain how or why this thing came to be but in a quarter of an hour on half a sheet of paper the scheme was set out in writing and when the Board met it was submitted to them.[16]

There are other versions of this episode although they all reach the same conclusion.  The initial version of the scheme was that a bonus would be paid to workers on the same basis as the sliding scale which linked the price of gas to profits for shareholders. A nest egg – a sum of money – would be paid to those who signed within three months. Neither the bonus nor the nest egg could be spent for a negotiated period. But to get this, workers had to agree to work for twelve months without interruption.[17]

The first mention of the profit sharing scheme in the Company minutes is 6th November and Will Thorne knew all about it at the re-called Cannon Street Conference on 11th November. Three years later Livesey told the Royal Commission of Labour that it was introduced on 30th October – but although a Board meeting was held that day there is no mention of it in the Minutes. So, did Livesey introduce his scheme without the Board's knowledge?

On 18th November South Met held a meeting with delegates from all the Company's works to explain the profit sharing scheme.  Livesey said told them 'to speak quite plainly - the Company intends to have some protection out of it’. He also said 'the public will think that it is better for us to have to put up with some inconvenience or a short supply of gas for a few days than to have the price permanently raised’.[18]

Livesey had thus made the bonus conditional on no strikes. By doing so he had switched the argument away from one about pay and hours’[19] to one about individual liberty, control in the workplace and ultimately control of the industry. It was on these issues that the 1889 strike was called.

Does this mean that he deliberately provoked the strike?

A week after the scheme had been announced the Union said that they would 'enforce Rule XVI’ which concerned union recognition. The company replied that the Union could not be recognised and non-union men would be preferred and protected.

The press began to report increased protest meetings. At one of these, Will Thorne said; 'those who signed the agreements were cowards, tyrants and curs'. [20]

On 2nd December the Union asked for the removal of three retort house workers at Vauxhall who had signed the agreements and on 4th December the Board received a resolution which the Union had sent on to the daily papers. It read: “That in the opinion of this meeting men who have signed the bonus scheme brought out by Mr.Livesey who we look upon as blacklegs to our Society is condemned by us as unjust, unfair and must be resisted and that all the men in the South Metropolitan Gas Works are justified in giving in their notices forthwith until the scheme is abolished and the said men removed from the works and that a copy be sent to the directors.”


The next day a correction to the resolution was sent out by the union, it should have read "or the said men," rather than ‘and the said men’.

By noon on 5th December 2,000 notices had been handed in. To be clear this was not actually a strike, although it is always described as such. Under the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act it was, of course, illegal for gas workers to strike and so it was necessary for them to give a week’s notice to terminate their employment and so the employers had a week’s notice of cessation of work.  The employers could thus argue that there was no need for them to negotiate with the union - men had legitimately and legally left their jobs, and they had legally and legitimately filled them with new workers.  That the men had all left at the same time was unfortunate but irrelevant. The men leaving the works were paid the lump sum due to them on their superannuation payments and it was on this that many of them were to live during the coming weeks,

The Union believed that the strike had been forced on them and published their manifesto which explicitly stated that the bonus scheme was designed to curtail the liberty of their members.

As the South Met. workers left a force of replacement labour was marched in under heavy police escort and with some drama.[21] As they arrived the works were picketed. There had been some sabotaged by departing workers, Four days earlier "unionists' had broken into a store at Greenwich-and thrown blankets into the Creek. A lobby had been set on fire at East Greenwich and equipment left which was set to give the maximum amount of leakage of gas. An effigy of Livesey was burnt outside The Pilot pub, just outside the East Greenwich gates.

Substitute labour had been recruited over previous weeks. Some of these men had come from a Cambridge and Sittingbourne and other areas where gas workers traditionally spent the summer and where in normal times winter workers would be recruited and doubtless some of them were men who would hope to be offered such winter work.  However South Meth’s agents had gone to many other areas to find men and held meetings of unemployed men in order to recruit them. A recruiting meeting in Ramsgate was followed by a letter of complaint from the local gasworks manager - his stokers had all been signed up by South Met.[22] Some others had come to London themselves looking for work because they had heard that men were wanted or they had been sent there by workhouse relieving officers.

Were some of these replacement workers ‘free labour’? These were 'all those who wished to make their own independent contract with their employers regardless of the trade-union position'.[23]  They were in effect conscious strike breakers recruited deliberately by ‘Free Labour’ agents.  The ‘Free Labour Association’ set up by William Collison[24] is said to have been set up in early 1890 encouraged by the South Met. dispute.[25] A local activist, C.Z.Burrows, a blacksmith with South Met. Since 1883 was a Vice President.[26]  It was not however necessarily the case that all the new men were conscious strike breakers. Many of them probably knew nothing about the issues in the South Met. dispute and only hoped to better their own positions.

Livesey was certainly involved with the Free Labour Association, as described by Collison although some years later, John Burns talking to a mass meeting about free labour, said that Livesey 'dropped them like a hot potato.”[27] Collison however described donations to the Association by Livesey, a visit to their office and congratulatory letters.[28]

It was said that some men recruited through "labour agents' were sometimes those classified by some as 'undesirables'. Speakers from Union platforms complained about a contingent of young men from Birmingham who had come for work, not been taken on and then proceeded to cause trouble. Police court reports list a number of convictions on drunk and disorderly charges among sixteen-year-olds with Birmingham addresses.[29] These convictions were all in the Rotherhithe area and the Union officials said this was an “undesirable element". It seems very unlikely that South Met. would have taken on sixteen-year-olds for retort house work and whatever did they do to shock Rotherhithe!

Pickets from the Union had some success in persuading some of the replacement labour to go home by offering fares but the press carried other stories of men who had come enormous distances to South Met. and not been taken on. Some of these men were taken to the local poor law institutions and to police cells.

Will Thorne was not in London for the start of the South Met. dispute. He was needed in Manchester to deal with disputes in the gas works there. As the press ran stories of escalating industrial action throughout the country, managements like South Met. became determined to stay in 'control' in the workplace.

Siege conditions prevailed in South Met.’s works. The replacement workers learned what they had to do, were fed and bedded by management and paid a bonus for it. Rumours soon began to spread that they were mutinous, starving, and infested with lice and diseased. Some men were certainly injured through inexperience of the work. Heavy fog and freezing conditions meant demand for gas was high. Gas pressure and quality fell and there were stories of how “Jumbo", [30] the giant gas holder at East Greenwich, was pumped full of air to reassure the public.

Public concern about the situation was expressed by the press which concentrated on the supply of gas. Times felt that; "a majority of people regard this strike as unreasonable and tyrannical". and they pointed out difficulties which, they said, the public had in sympathising with a striking workforce which was well paid and had downed tools on a point of principle.[31] Others agreed - as in St. James' Gazette 'we hope that the general public will support the gas company '.[32] . The Standard agreed: 'The Directors of the South Metropolitan Gas Company are doing their duty in determining to resist this demand"[33]. The Daily News said "the unions will do themselves more harm than the employers'[34] and the Daily Chronicle condemned the 'leftward' ideas in the profit sharing scheme: 'Mr. Livesey should leave well alone and keep his profit sharing scheme for consumption at a Toynbee Hall meeting’.[35]

Only the Star offered a more detailed discussion on the cost of gas, coal prices and wages. They saw the profit sharing scheme as an attack on the union and wished the gasmen ‘every success in defeating an impudent attempt to impose upon them'.[36]

In the trade press Gas World, ever against Livesey, condemned the profit sharing scheme describing it as 'specious' and Livesey's behaviour as ‘machiavelism'. They said that the officers in the besieged works were being fed on lobsters. [37] Others had noticed the supply of beer going into the works - despite Livesey's well known temperance advocacy.

Local papers were more sympathetic since gas workers were among their paying readership. South London Press described the strike committee as 'a fine intelligent body of men' and ran a flattering profile of Will Thorne together with a picture.  They reported a request from Livesey for board and lodgings for replacement workers in a local workhouse. The Vice-chairman of the Lambeth Board of Guardians was currently speaking on gas worker platforms and the reply was 'do you think that this is a common lodging house'. [38]

Local political parties gave some support. Kennington Liberals had already passed a resolution of support for the gas workers and this was followed by Dulwich and Penge Liberals who also condemned police brutality towards strikers. [39]

The Star then urging working class consumers to burn large amounts of gas to try and run down the available supplies. They also suggested that ratepayers should issue proceedings against the Company for an inadequate gas supply. In Bermondsey a deputation to the local vestry was led by Harry Quelch, the Social Democratic Federation activist. He urged them to sue the Gas Company for breach of contract by reason of the poor quality of the gas. He was backed by a Vestryman, Dr.Esmonde, who said that the poor light was seriously affecting the eyesight of his patients (laughter). It was decided to write to the Company concerning this breach of contract. The officers then said that there was no formal contract only an 'understanding' and that any suing would have to be done by the County Council.[40]

The other London Gas Companies met the Union leadership again at the Cannon Street Hotel on 17th November [41] and reached a large measure of agreement, the Gas Workers' manifesto published on 7th December said 'they would always be indebted to the kind consideration shown’[42]  and quoted H.E.Jones, Chairman of the Commercial Company ‘'your interests are our interests; we cannot do without you’ and the Union 'devoutly wished for the peaceful working of the men so admirably put .. at the Cannon Street Hotel'.

Jones wrote to the Times on 9th December " to point out the benefits that Livesey had brought to gas workers in the past and regretting what was obviously a misunderstanding on all sides” the Union should have 'attention and respect' and he pressed the right of the men to combine. He wrote again on 31st December and was 'overwhelmed by the virtues of the strike committee'.[43]

As the gas supply produced by South Met. began to improve the Union began to flounder and in its published statements began to modify the terms on which men would return to the works. The Company continued to ignore them - pointing out that the men had left legally and could return if they wished; when vacancies arose.

A series of would-be mediators emerged. Two local Members of Parliament, Causton and Beaufoy, put themselves forward and at the same time a group of non-conformist ministers approached the Company, followed by a local Church of England vicar. Towards the end of December a more persistent approach was made by two members of the Labour Association – an organisation set up to promote profit sharing. However, Ivimey and Greening were no more successful than the churchmen.

A more successful strike was running concurrently with that at South Met, and was very sympathetic to the gas workers there. This was undertaken by the Coal Porters Union under the leadership of Michael Henry. the Coal Porters covered several other industries NS Through them the dispute spread to the Tyne where Henry went to persuade colliers to black ships bound for South Met. works in the Thames and through this the Sailors and Firemen's Unions were involved. Ships on the river were picketed and some crews taken off. There was an attempt to resolve this through a Conference at the Mansion House with Cardinal Manning and other 'self appointed mediators". Livesey dismissed this saying that such people had no understanding of the dispute nor of the conditions prevailing in industry.'

Another concurrent strike took place at the Government owned Royal Arsenal gas works in Woolwich. This was on the eight hours issue and led to questions in Parliament.

Mass meetings and demonstrations continued and speaker at one threatened Livesey's life, to be condemned by all sides.  on 21st December the South Met union officers put out a statement saying that while they could not accept the profit sharking agreements 'we cannot forget the attachment that we feel to out old employers ... and. nothing would give us greater satisfaction than a return to our previous relations '. 

The Gas Workers Union was aware that they needed the help of other unions and asked 'whether the trade unions of England would allow them to be defeated?' ‘By 25th December speakers said that they would bring out the men at the Beckton works. But they did not come out and there was then no hope that the South Met. men could win the dispute. gas was being made nod the Union members were all out of work - all they could do was to try and persuade Livesey to take them back.

'Mr. Livesey had said if the strikers went ' back to work they have to go back for twelve hours - they had come out for eight hours and would go back for eight hours and the dignity of Englishmen would not let them do anything else. They were not going to creep and crawl to Livesey for work... ' This is all fine and stirring stuff but they had not come out for eight hours but for the right to organise. Other trade unions had not rallied round. Only the Hatters all 800 of them had agreed a contrinbution as did the Glass Blowers.

Harry Quelch said he knew why the othere unions had not rallied round.. 'the trade unions had too long been the aristocracy of Labour and cared no more for the Gas Workers in their struggle.... than if they had been the red Indians. ' A meeting of unions at Mile End only advised them to ask the London Trades Council to negotiate a settlement. Losing sympathy on all sides, the South London Gas Workers went, as advised,  to the London Trades Council who co-ordinated a meeting between them, the Coal Porters, and the Sailors and Firemen. The strike was called off

The Union announced that the Company had agreed to an eight hour system and to take men back if and when vacancies occurred and hoped the Company would take back men with families first. Livesey wrote to The Times explaining that a ballot had been held at the various works on the subject of the shift system and that men at most works had voted to go back onto the eight hour day. If the twelve hour system was to remain it was because the workers had voted for it themselves. He was quite happy, he added, to take back old workers - he had indeed already taken many back. Unfortunately spring was coming and vacancies would be few.

If this was an agreement it was of the most humiliating sort. Livesey did not have to agree to anything - he had already implemented most of its clauses, or said he had. The strike had gained nothing but a lot of destitute ex-gas workers. The strike headquarters now became a welfare agency distributing charity to those without work and was soon to be visited by Livesey with a donation.

The Union had instigated the strike with more rhetoric than finance. The strike had been entirely run by local branch members who were probably inexperienced. They had come out on an issue not readily understood by the general public and not easily sympathised with even by people who were committed trade unionists. They had engaged in strike action involving thousands of workers needing strike pay with virtually no reserves and dependent on street collections. They had given the Company time to prepare for a lengthy strike and then given a week's notice. They had also taken on a company with consierabke reserves. Their optimism and naivety was astounding and a contributory reason to the decline of the union within the next few years must be the disillusionment of ordinary workers with them.


[1] Gas Workers’ Union,. Minutes
[2] Gas Workers’ Union. Minutes.
[3] Notice pasted into the South Met. minute books
[4][4] Justice 13th July 1889
[5] Directors’ Report and Accounts. December 1889.
[6] South Met. Minutes  5th September 1889
[7] Labour Elector 8th September 1889
[8] Labour Elector 14th September 1889
[9] Labour Elector 28th September 1889
[10] Star 15th October 1889
[11] Directors’ Report and Accounts. December 1889
[12] Labour Elector 2nd November 1889
[13] South London Press 14th September 1889
[14] Report of a meeting. Gas Workers Union papers 1889
[15] It was later converted into a park like this
[16] Co-partnership Journal March 1905
[17] Obviously there were exceptions to this – death, retirement, sickness, agreed holidays, compassionate absences, etc.  The idea is to stop strikes.
[18] Interview document
[19] Melling
[20] Times 5th December 1889
[21] These episodes were extensively reported in the local press – mainly Kentish Mercury and South London Press.  There were also some reports in the Labour Press – mainly Justice and Labour Elector.
[22] Journal of Gas Lighting 10th December 1889
[23] Saville. Trade Unions and Free Labour.
[24] Collison. The Apostle of Free Labour
[25] Smethurst & Carter. Historical Directory of Trade Unions
[26] Free Labour Gazette
[27] Journal of Gas Lighting 7th April 1991.
[28] Collison. Apostle of Free Labour
[29] Times 16th December 1889
[30] East Greenwich No.1.
[31] Times 16th December 1889
[32] Gas World December 1889
[33] Gas World. December 1889                                   ­­
[34] Daily News December 1889
[35] Daily Chronicle 5th December 1889
[36] Star. 16th December 1889
[37] Gas World December 1889
[38] South London Press. December 1889
[39] South London Press December 1889
[40] Times 20th January 1890
[41] Report of Meetings at Cannon Street Hotel
[42] Times 7th December 1889
[43] Times 31st December 1889

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