The 1897 Engineers’ Strike in Chiswick

by John Grigg, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 13 (2004)

This story, based upon reports in The Chiswick Times and The Acton & Chiswick Gazette, is about a strike by the engineers who worked at Thornycroft’s shipyard at Church Wharf in Chiswick in 1897.

John Isaac Thornycroft established the yard in 1864 and by the 1890s was employing 1,800 men building destroyers for the British and foreign navies. The firm moved to Southampton in 1904 when the ships became too big to get under the Thames bridges.

The four or five hundred engineers at the yard were members of the Hammersmith branches of the Associated Society of Engineers (ASE). They served a seven-year apprenticeship and another five before coming on to full pay which, in 1897, was 10d an hour (about 4p in today’s money). Their basic working day was nine hours. At Thornycrofts work started at 6am. There was a half hour break for breakfast and an hour for lunch and the men were expected to work overtime. The normal leaving time was 9pm. Many Thornycroft skilled workers rented terraced cottages on the Glebe estate or in the Paxton Road area – properties now fetching up to £500,000. Others, whose families lived away from Chiswick, lodged locally during the week. Unskilled workers lived in poorer property, since demolished and replaced by council flats, at the end of Devonshire Road.

At Thornycrofts in 1896 there were demarcation disputes between the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) and the Boilermakers’ Union over who should do work on boiler manhole covers. The Chiswick engineers claimed it was their work and came out on strike on 15 July for three weeks; the boilermakers struck over the same issue for a week in August. The company said the matter had to be settled and the unions agreed to submit future disputes to arbitration. [There is a fine image of a banner of the London District, United Society of Boilermakers and Iron and Steel Shipbuilders on the web-site of the People’s History Museum here.]

In March 1897 the 70 ship joiners at Thornycrofts struck as part of a London-wide carpenters’ and joiners’ strike for an increase from 10d to 10½d an hour and a reduction in hours from nine and a half to eight. The firm accepted the wage increase but said Tyneside competition prevented them granting the reduction in hours. The joiners remained out and in fact never went back. Thornycrofts replaced them with non-union men, an action resented by other unions at the shipyard, and there were court appearances after scuffles between strikers and the non-union men. One man was bound over to keep the peace.

National strike
Meanwhile the ASE, allied with some smaller craft unions, had been negotiating with the London Federation of Engineering Employers for an 8-hour day and the concession was secured at many firms for about half of their 10,500 London members. But three big firms – Thornycrofts, Middletons at Southwark and Humphrey & Tennants at Deptford – refused the 8 hours and at the beginning of July the ASE and allied TUs called out their members at these firms. The three companies then joined the northern based National Federation of Engineering Employers led by Colonel Dyer, a much tougher outfit than the London Employers’ Federation. This National Federation locked-out ASE members at selected firms in the North in retaliation for the ASE strike in London. The ASE then called out all its members nationally, except in firms where the eight-hours had been accepted, and there was a national stoppage. The local dispute had grown into one of the most famous nationwide strikes.

Sir Robert Ensor in The Oxford History of Great Britain (1870-1914) wrote that ‘trade unionism went ahead through the nineties with a new impetus…. The most famous disputes were the miners’ lock-out in 1893 and the engineers’ strike of 1897′.

In Chiswick Thornycrofts said 450 out of 1,700 men were on strike and they were buying in ship parts from America. The boilermakers never came out in Chiswick or nationally and this was a crucial factor that affected the final outcome.

The large garden of The Old Ship

The large garden of The Old Ship

The yard was picketed and the men set up their headquarters at the Old Ship public house by the river in Hammersmith Mall, which had large grounds where meetings could be held. The pub is still there and you can see the open space beside it stretching back towards Chiswick. They elected a strike committee with James A Welch as chairman and Mr Fynn as secretary. Other members of the committee were Mr Mills, David Rose and Frederick Harlock. From the outset several meetings were held each week addressed by many speakers including Tom Mann and John Burns, both renowned labour leaders, as well as men from many unions including the Smiths and Hammermen, the Drillers’ Union, The Machine Workers’ Society, the Marine Engineers’ Society, the Coalporters’ Union, the Bakers’ Union and the Carpenters and Joiners. Another speaker was Albert Tochatti, an anarchist of some repute. At some of the meetings Mrs Tochatti sang stirring songs such as England Arise, The Wearing of the Green, and Hark the Battle Cry is Ringing.

From these speeches, reported in great detail in The Chiswick Times, can be extracted the main issues of the strike. Great emphasis was placed upon an idealistic need for men to work shorter hours in order to gain time for self-improvement and community involvement. There was debate over the need for greater federation and merger of unions to achieve increased strength and unity of action. Another debate was over the need for political action, some believing that legislation was the way forward to improve working conditions and that the unions should cut their links with the Liberal party and run their own candidates.

The Boilermakers’ Union attracted great resentment and invective. The London boilermakers, who had at first decided to strike, were drawn back at the last moment by their Newcastle-based National Executive Council which decided the eight-hours should be negotiated by peaceful means.

The employers contended that higher labour costs would lose them markets to Germany and the USA; John Burns in speeches to the Chiswick men produced strings of figures to dispute this. Tom Mann emphasised the international nature of the labour movement. Union speakers at the Old Ship declared that the employers were fighting to destroy the ASE. The employers denied this but said that an important issue was their right to run their businesses free from TU interference in shop floor working practices.

By escalating the stoppage the employers put a huge financial burden on the ASE’s strike fund which was paying out to their members and also to affected non-union members. The fund was financed from accumulated reserves, by support from other unions, and by a levy on the ASE members who were still working in those shops that had conceded the eight-hours. Great speeches of encouragement were made at the Old Ship emphasising the historic nature of the struggle.

Yet all was not going well for the union in Chiswick. The Brassfounders’ Union had called out its London members but those at Thornycrofts left the Union and joined the Ironfounders’ Union which had allied itself with the boilermakers and was not on strike.

Another setback was Thornycroft’s success in obtaining blackleg labour from as far away as Bristol and Cardiff. Chiswick tradesmen refused to serve those who were taking the jobs of the local men, so Thornycrofts brought in food and drink which was sold to the strike-breakers on the premises during meal breaks. The determined Chiswick ASE members set up an effective picketing system and a number of strike-breakers were persuaded to return home.

Thornycrofts hit back by co-operating with the police. Eight strikers were arrested and charged under a section of the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act for ‘following with two or more persons in a disorderly manner.’ When they left the works the strike-breakers had been followed by a crowd, whistling the Dead March and shouting out phrases like ‘You dirty dogs’, ‘Boo – you blacklegs’ or ‘What a fine body of men.’ The police considered this to be disorderly behaviour.

The arrested men, who were led into court handcuffed and chained together, denied the charges and the union instructed a barrister to defend them. The cases were heard before a severe looking magistrate, Mr Albert De Rutszen.

Three of the men claimed they were not in Chiswick on the day in question. Bill Hurst produced witnesses who swore they were together in the Lamb Tavern, Church Street and then the Duke of York, Devonshire Road all evening. Another of the accused, Tom Cotton, had a witness who said he met Tom at 10am at the Old Ship and they went to Ealing and Wembley, not returning to Chiswick until after midnight having waited an hour for a train at Willesden Junction. The magistrate did not believe these witnesses. He did however discharge Joe Punter whose sister-in-law, a cook in service in Kensington, confirmed that he and his wife and child were having supper with her that evening. Nevertheless the magistrate said there was no doubt Punter had been ‘following in a disorderly manner’ on other evenings and he was fortunate to be let off.

Tom Syrett was also charged with assaulting Albert Hawker, one of the strike-breakers, in the street and, despite the only witness being Hawker’s fellow lodger and the absence of medical evidence, the magistrate found Syrett guilty. This was the only mention of violence reported by The Chiswick Times during the strike.

On 17 August De Rutzen found seven of the eight guilty of ‘following in a disorderly manner’. He said it was useless to impose fines because they would be paid by the union leaving no responsibility upon the men’s shoulders. He sentenced them to three weeks hard labour with an extra week for Syrett for the assault. The men appealed and were released, the union having put up bail, pending a further hearing at the Middlesex Quarter Sessions.

At the next meeting down at the Old Ship, after Tom Glazier from the Independent Labour Party had made an enlightening and rousing speech, a woman intervened. ‘…I have met a woman with five children whose husband has worked at Thornies for seventeen years and he has gone to prison for three weeks! Go home and educate yourselves! Elect better men as your officials! How many men have died and gone under? You sit down and take it easy!…’

On Sunday 22 August there was a huge procession of 3,000 people, behind the Hammersmith Trades Council brass band, from the Queen of England in Goldhawk Road to Turnham Green where a great demonstration took place. There was an Independent Labour Party banner on the march and many others from unions representing the engineers, gasworkers and general labourers, stonemasons, drillers, hammermen and watermen. Speeches were made from two platforms. One of the speakers was Miss Amy Morant. She was the only woman who spoke at the Chiswick meetings and the tone of The Chiswick Times report indicates that she was well known. But who was she?

On Sunday 29 August about 350 Chiswick men and their supporters went by steamer from Hammersmith to Blackfriars and marched to Hyde Park where there were eight speakers’ platforms.

The Old Ship meetings continued but became ominously less frequent after September. The employers were refusing to budge and a Boilermakers’ national ballot confirmed the decision not to join the strike. Funds were running low and settlement talks had begun. Instead of great rousing speeches someone gave a talk on his visit to America. Mr Bolas, a chemistry professor who lived in Chiswick and unsuccessfully stood for Chiswick Council in 1894 and 1898, spoke about miniature glass working. The men formed a Music Society. They started up the Chiswick Debating Society and had discussions on socialism and the history of the working classes.

On Sunday 10 October the Chiswick men marched from Turnham Green to Eelbrook Common, Walham Green to a rally attended by 5,000 people. There were two platforms and many speeches urging one final effort. This was the last big rally reported in The Chiswick Times.

Then in November the sentences on the seven men were confirmed at the Quarter Sessions, although the extra week awarded to Syrett was waived. Several of the men broke down in tears as they were led away. The news was received with disbelief and horror by much of the local population. There were protest meetings and concerts and collections were organised for the men’s families.

On the day of their release the Chiswick Times reporter was invited to accompany the strike committee in a brake pulled by four horses to Wormwood Scrubs to welcome the men. He missed the brake but took a tramcar and caught it up at Hammersmith Broadway. The police would not allow the hundreds of supporters into Du Cane Road to hold a demonstration outside the prison and they waited in Wood Lane. At 8.30am the seven were spotted approaching through the misty November morning accompanied by several policemen. There were many handshakes and welcomes when they reached Wood Lane. A banner was raised saying ‘Welcome to our martyred comrades’, and there were banners from the ASE, The United Society of Smiths and Hammermen (Lambeth & Southwark Branch), the United Male and Female Costermongers and Street Sellers Benefit and Protection Society (Notting Hill Branch), The National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers (Fulham Branch), and the Fawcett Liberal Club.

The men were conveyed along North Pole Road in the Chiswick brake behind a brass band to the Fawcett Club headquarters in Blechynden Street, Notting Hill. The cavalcade was large and cheers were raised when specimens of prison bread were raised on poles. The men joined in the jokes with good humour ‘yet there was occasional evidence that conflicting emotions strove for mastery with them’. They had not been allowed to shave in prison and had stubbly beards giving one or two a fierce appearance. All had lost weight – from four to seven pounds.

They were treated to a substantial breakfast at the club where there were speeches condemning the brutal sentences and welcoming the ‘martyrs in the cause of labour’ on their return to life and liberty. One of the released men, Frederick Harlock who was a member of the strike committee, spoke for his comrades and thanked the Club for all they had done.

The procession reformed, marched to Hammersmith Broadway and then along King Street, Chiswick High Road and Chiswick Lane to the Lamb Tavern where the East End contingent left them. A Mr Keene presented two boxes of cigars for distribution between the released men and others. Those still left went on to Turnham Green where the procession finished and the released men were driven in the brake to their respective homes.

Defeat or progress?
Negotiations at national level dragged on through December. The employers were not only rejecting the 8t-hour day, but were refusing to settle unless the unions agreed to changes to a number of working practices which affected piecework and apprentices, and included the employment of unskilled workers on machines. The ASE held a national ballot before Christmas and voted overwhelmingly to continue the strike. The employers made some concessions on working practices but would not give way on the 8-hour day. Another ASE ballot was held in January and although the Hammersmith branches, made up mainly of the Chiswick men, voted 80 to 22 to continue the strike, the country-wide decision was to accept the masters’ terms. The strike was over. There was no 8-hour day at Thornycrofts and none of the striking engineers were reinstated by the company. Many found work elsewhere.

So the strike went down as a defeat. But was it? The ASE had gained and retained the 8-hour day in many London firms. And the defeat taught the labour movement two lessons. More unions amalgamated or formed federations to avoid the inter-union disputes that had disabled the 1897 strike. They also turned towards political action and in 1900 joined with the Fabian Society, the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation to form the Labour Representation Committee which later became the Labour Party.

Somewhere in Chiswick, near Church Wharf, or at the Old Ship by the Thames, there should be a memorial to the Chiswick seven, who The Chiswick Times described as ‘martyrs to the cause of labour’ – Thomas Cotton, Frederick Harlock, John Humphries, William Hurst, Benjamin Munson, Thomas Syrett and Richard Taylor.

John Grigg was a local Labour councillor, on and off, from 1958 to 1990 and Leader of Hounslow Council in 1986. This article results from his hobby which is researching the history of the Labour Movement.

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