Subscribe in a reader

OR ... get the weekly East End History newsletter

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Category: East End policing

1912 – a year of strikes in the East End of London

Coal strikes, docks lying idle, garment workers walking out in their thousands … why was 1912 such a particularly bitter year for labour disputes?

In truth, the battles between labour and capital of a century ago had been coming for decades. In 1870, Britain had been the industrial powerhouse of the world, making some 32 per cent of the goods manufactured on the planet. Having your industrial revolution before everyone else and a worldwide empire to plunder for raw materials (and to export to) does confer certain economic advantages. But by Edwardian times, this small collection of islands was being dwarfed by the new industrialised nations. Now the USA was making 36 per cent of world goods, Germany 16 per cent. Britain, meanwhile had slumped to just 14 per cent.

And it was worse than it looked. The figures betrayed a major decline in Britain’s industrial base. While the US and Germany were investing heavily in their industry, British firms failed to invest, squeezing the last drops from antique machinery and buildings. Meanwhile, bosses were struggling to keep ageing factories and pits in some sort of profit by holding down wages; for years, working people had seen their real wage steadily decrease. And what bright spots there were in the Balance of Payment figures came from the UK’s increased reliance on banking and financial services. Although the clothes and customs may have changed, much about 1912 London seems strangely familiar to a viewer from 2012.

And though we can pin many of the disputes down to 1912, in truth this was an entire age of confrontation – the years described by historians today as ‘The Great Unrest’. Britons had been battling for years for social and economic reform. That would come, but only in the wake of the mass bloodletting of World War I. For now, many of the reforms anticipated after another wave of strikes in the late 19th century (including the Bryant and May matchgirls’ strike of 1888, and the Great Dock Strike a year later) simply hadn’t come.

The Fabians and the emerging Labour movement may have pushed hard, but trade unions were still piecemeal, craft societies. They might have power in their own factory or warehouse, but concerted national action was something else. The union movement had suffered a body blow with the Taff Vale judgement in 1901, which ruled that unions were legally liable for damages incurred during strikes.

In June 1911, National Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, pushing for a wage rise, called on the transport workers for help. That summer, Britain’s major ports and railways were brought to a halt. In South Wales, even the schoolkids came out on strike and, remarkably, some policemen. Liverpool had its own general strike, as companies could not move goods without a permit from the strike committee. But across the UK, the strikes were quickly over, settled locally as ever. German anarchist Rudolf Rocker, who had settled in Whitechapel, became convinced that what was needed was concerted national action.

In 1912 the opportunity came. The miners struck for four weeks, and the East End docks were brought to a halt for two months. And as summer approached, a strike started among West End tailors for better piece rates. On 2 May, the Times reported 7000-8000 workers at one strike meeting. Enter Rocker, who had spent years trying to entice the Jewish garment workers of Whitechapel to properly unionise. The East Enders had long been seen as scabs – indeed they were already taking up the work not being done by the striking West End tailors. But on 8 May, Rocker spoke before 8000 at a hall in Whitechapel, with 3000 in the street outside. A vote was taken, and two days later 13,000 workers walked out – it was the biggest East End strike since 1889.

Rocker, the arch organiser, was already seeing the bigger picture. He moved to organise joint meetings and demonstrations between dockers and tailors. The aim was not simply to scare the bosses and the government, but to build solidarity between the two communities. Three weeks later the tailors (both West End and East) had won shorter hours, no piecework and better sanitary conditions – and the factories became closed shops. The strike was won.

Now attention turned to the dockers, many of them now starving. Whitechapel tailoring families took in some 300 dockers’ children – mistrust between trades, or between Jews and Gentiles was put aside. The dispute had echoes of the 1889 London Dock Strike. During that conflict, the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union had been swiftly formed to coordinate the previously wildcat strike action, with Ben Tillett as its general secretary. Then, in 1912, Tillett folded his union, along with the National Union of Dock Labourers and the National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union, into the National Transport Workers’ Federation. And with dockers and tailors working together, it seemed the age of big union organisation was upon the East End. But again the dispute simply petered out.

Seeds had been sown though. Mass unionisation would come, and so would the great labour disputes of the 1920s – most notably the General Strike of 1926. And a relationship between the dockers and garment workers had also been formed. For historian Bill Fishman, an eyewitness at the Battle of Cable Street 24 years later, the union of disparate groups there had its roots in that 1912 linkup, saying: “It was moving to me to see bearded Jews and Irish dockers side by side as comrades.” Some stories, it seems, take decades to play out.

Fleet Street moves to the East End

The second half of the 19th century was a great age for the press, as taxes on publications and newsprint were removed, new printing techniques made big print runs possible, and pioneering editors such as the pacificist WT Stead reinvented their trade. And as the 20th century approached, a new breed of entrepreneurial owners would push the industry to new heights.

In 1896, Alfred Harmsworth launched the Daily Mail, costing a halfpenny against the penny cover price of its rivals. The Mail was fiercely imperialist, backing the Government in the Boer War (to the horror of Stead) and earning a reputation for putting patriotism above objectivity. The power of the press was such that many people blamed Harmsworth for Britain’s entry into the First World War (he had been predicting war with ‘The Hun’ since the turn of the century). ‘The most unscrupulous man in Britain,’ railed Lloyd George – before inviting him into his cabinet. But, adding popular features and crisp, concise writing into the mix, the Mail was a huge success.

In 1900 Sir Arthur Pearson founded the Daily Express, which moved its sights from court, war and hard news reporting, bringing in gossip, sports and features for women. And in 1903, Harmsworth launched the Daily Mirror, which replaced illustrations with photographs. Popular mass journalism had been born.

Over the following years, many more papers followed: The Daily Sketch in 1909, the Daily Herald in 1911 (the first national paper of the Labour movement), the Sunday Pictorial (Sunday Mirror) in 1915, Sunday Express in 1918, the Daily Worker and News Chronicle in 1930.

Alongside them, London had three paid-for evening papers, each of them hitting the streets in several editions each day. Its unimaginable today, but in an age before radio and TV, let alone the instant information of the internet, the paper was your only source of information. People would wait on East End corners for the latest edition of The Star (born 1888), The Evening News (1881) or The Evening Standard (1827) to get the racing results from the courses around the country. And scandal was never far away. Journalists from The Star were accused of sensationalising the Whitechapel Murders in 1888 and even inventing the name of Jack the Ripper.

The 1950s and 60s were a peak for Fleet Street, with a dominant Daily Mirror (by now transformed into a Labour, working class title) battling the Mail and the Express for readers, and readerships for ‘the qualities’ steadily climbing. In the 60s, the Daily Express sold an astonishing 6m copies a day (against a tenth of that today) and had foreign correspondents dotted around the globe. The Daily Mirror, meanwhile, was selling 5m copies against 1.2m today.

But things were about to change dramatically. Along with huge readerships the papers had accrued huge staffs. Proprietors began to look at new print technologies as a way of cutting costs, particularly a move from the old, labour intensive hot metal style of typesetting and printing. In 1968, Rupert Murdoch bought the News of the World and added the Sun in 1969.

It was a baleful end for a paper that had started as the Daily Herald before being unsuccessfully reinvented by Mirror Group in the early Sixties. The remnant of a paper once edited by Hamilton Fyfe, Charles Lapworth and George Lansbury would now feature Page 3 girls and greet the sinking of the Belgrano with the headline ‘Gotcha!’. Murdoch added the Times and Sunday Times to his News International portfolio in 1981. Long battles with the unions ensued, with lockouts, papers shut down for months at a time, and a state of simmering war between journalists and printers (who could stop the presses at any time).

Fleet Street needed to change but change was brutal when it came. Under the guise of launching a new Sunday paper, Murdoch moved his titles to Wapping over a dramatic weekend in 1986. The aim, with the complicit assistance of the Tory government was to break the unions and, in a violent replay of the Miners Strike of the two years before, that was exactly what they did.

‘The Dirty Digger’, as Private Eye gleefully dubbed him, declared that Fleet Street had ‘three times the number of jobs at five times the level of wages’ as other countries. He also knew the new Atex typesetting technology could remove typesetters at a stroke, and neuter their powerful unions. Murdoch, who as a student at Oxford was so left wing he was dubbed ‘Red Rupe’, devised a military style plan to smash the print unions and make printing profitable.

Police officers would hold back the pickets each night, and Wapping residents (who often couldn’t get to their own front doors) would find themselves in a warzone. Just over a year later the pickets admitted defeat – News International hadn’t lost a single night of printing, and the industury was changed forever.

Many of the other papers may not have liked Murdoch’s approach, but they quickly followed his lead. The papers left their old Fleet Street homes, with editorial office upstairs and presses below, for the East End.

1 Canada Square, previously derided as the most obvious landmark of a white elephant Docklands, became home to the Telegraph, the Mirror, the People and the Independent. The Mail, along with its Evening Standard, would head in the opposite direction, to Kensington, and the Express to the south side of Blackfriars Bridge. The Telegraph and Express papers, meanwhile, would be printed at Westferry on the Isle of Dogs.

Fleet Street had moved to the East End. Meanwhile the printers and compositors, many of them East Enders themselves, found themselves out of jobs – most would never work in newspapers again. 301 years after the Daily Courant first hit the London streets, we stand at the other end of the newspaper revolution, with dwindling sales and the reputation of newspapers and their proprietors (and their friends in police and Parliament) lower than ever. As the owners of News International lurch through their daily crises, East Enders may be wondering how much longer they’ll have the Murdochs as neighbours.

The Brick Lane bombing

THE targeting of Brick Lane may have a twisted logic for Saturday’s bombers.
If there’s one area that has shown the ability of Londoners to welcome and absorb incoming cultures it’s Spitalfields, as wave after wave of immigrants have settled in the area and each added their unique ingredients to the strong cultural mix of the East End.
But if there’s one lesson the politicians of hate haven’t learned from history, it’s that centuries of attacks against the Irish, Huguenots, Jews and now Bangladeshis don’t drive people away, they just make them stronger.
Even before immigration began in earnest, the area had a reputation for religious and cultural diversity – and it was always a haven for refugees and free-thinkers.
In 1675, when there were 1,300 new buildings crammed onto the old market gardens, it was seen as a centre of non-conformity, as citizens resisted the authority of the established Church of England. In fact the first Baptist church in England had been built there in 1612.
And organised opposition to incomers is nothing new. Back in the early 1700s, there had been protests in the streets of Spitalfields as the newly built-up area was settled by Huguenots, refugees from religious persecution in the Low Countries.

Fine weaving skills
They had come, under the protection of the English crown, bringing with them their skills of fine silk-weaving to settle around Fournier and Elder Streets. Many locals resented their new ways, but soon the incomers were bringing wealth and jobs to the area, as Spitalfields became famous for fine cloths.
Then, in 1780, Lord George Gordon played on Protestant fears of Rome to stoke up the Gordon Riots. Many Irish people had settled on the eastern fringes of the City, looking for work and escaping religious persecution, poverty and starvation back in their home country.
On June 2, Roman Catholic chapels in Spitalfields were burned to the ground and the mob made for Downing Street. Most of them never got there, having sacked Langdale’s Brewery in Holborn and poisoned themselves as they gorged on alcohol. Their eccentric leader was arrested for treason and saw out his years in prison.
For many East Enders, their proudest defence against the forces of fascism came in the wake of the Jewish immigration of the late 1800s.
The Jews had come in their thousands, escaping the pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe. Jewishness is an essential ingredient in the rich recipe that is today’s East End, whether it be the humour, the numerous charitable schools and settlements the incomers established, or the world-famous Brick Lane Beigel Shop.
But for some, richness, newness and diversity is itself a threat. In the 1930s Oswald Mosley, another rabble-rouser who pitched for people’s fears, led his Blackshirts on provocative marches around Brick Lane and Club Row.
The fascist challenge culminated in the Battle of Cable Street, on October 5, 1936, when East Enders decided once and for all that the racists would not pass.
The Blackshirts were broken, as was their leader, who had marched his troops up the hill and down again – and achieved nothing. He drifted from influence, a forlorn and half-forgotten figure.

Back in the 1970s, Brick Lane was changing again. Most of the Jewish population had moved on, and their place was taken by a new wave of refugees, Bangladeshis – many fleeing the war that led to the secession of the new Bangladesh from Pakistan.
Walk along Brick Lane today and you will see that some mosques carry a Star Of David above the door – testament to their previous lives as synagogues and the capacity of the area to welcome and absorb new religions and cultures.
On Brick Lane though, the Sunday morning market was a magnet for the new fascists of the National Front and, later, the British Movement and British National Party to hand out their literature of race hate.
But, just like in the 1930s, a new wave of defiance rose to meet them.
The late seventies saw the birth of the Anti Nazi League, Rock Against Racism and the anti-racist movement that eventually forced them off the streets.
The last ten years have demonstrated just how good the East End is at absorbing new religions, cultures and ideas – and how much the area gains from it.
As for the fascists – they’ve yet to learn the lessons
of history.

The recent nail bomb attack on Brick Lane confirms the activity of far right neo-Nazi groups in Tower Hamlets.
Although race hate incidents seem to have subsided recently, the East End is not without its fair share of race- related violence.
The British National Party (BNP), which hit the headlines in 1993 when it secured a council by-election victory in Millwall ward, is believed to be a major player in creating racial tension.
Anti-fascist magazine Searchlight gave us details of the BNP’s history and the origins of other organisations focused against Asians, blacks, Jews and other ethnic minorities.
“Formed in 1982, the BNP spent much of the 1980s in the shadow of the National Front (NF),” said the magazine.
“The BNP’s Millwall victory was achieved after several years of activity. “Campaigning under the slogan Rights for Whites, the BNP successfully galvanised electoral support with a public that had become disillusioned with the main political parties.
“However, the election victory was secured at a heavy local cost. The Rights for Whites campaign, launched in 1990 heralded a massive increase in racial violence throughout east London. While BNP members were personally responsible for only a fraction of these incidents, their political activity and direct scapegoating, coupled with equally racist national media contributed to an atmosphere of racial tension.”
“It was also in the early nineties that the Nazi group Combat 18 emerged out of the BNP’s stewarding group.”
“The 1,500 strong BNP now accepts that the majority of British people totally refute Nazi and anti-Semitic ideas.
“But the party is playing with words rather than substance and as night follows day, Nazism, and violence follow the BNP.”

The Blue Lamp: East End police

David Swinden joined the Metropolitan Police in 1958. ‘When I joined as a constable in Stratford, all unmarried officers lived in the police section houses. There was a real sense of family that for better or worse is disappearing now,’ he remembers.

By the time Superintendent Swinden retired from the Met in 1994, things had changed beyond recognition. Now a senior lecturer at the University of East London, David has a lifetime of memories of his time as a policeman, and some great stories from earlier days. Now he has got together with Peter Kennison, another former police officer and now a lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex University, to co-author Behind the Blue Lamp. For fans of East End history it makes fascinating reading.

The book explores the social history of local police stations and the officers who, since 1829, have been keeping the peace in our neighbourhoods.

The Met was created in 1829, replacing the old Bow Street Horse Patrol, itself formed in 1805 to combat the many highway robberies around London. The recruitment criteria were surprisingly precise, with officers being ‘married ex-Cavalrymen aged 30-65’.

The officers were famously nicknamed ‘Bobbies’ or ‘Peelers’ after then prime minister Robert Peel. They were nicknames that faded with the twentieth century, with the soubriquet ‘coppers’ proving longer lasting.

Modern-day officers may think the force is a full-time job, but for their Victorian counterparts it really was. They got no days off and were expected to wear their uniforms at all times. Rules were relaxed a little in 1869 – constables were then permitted to wear beards.

And while the importance of drawing officers from the local area later became recognised, in the early days the Met avoided cockneys. Men were recruited from rural areas because country folk were considered less corruptible than local Londoners!

But even if they didn’t come from the local community, communities still grew within the stations and section houses. Until recently, snooker and billiard tables were standard issue in divisional police stations, along with boxing gloves, and sets of draughts, backgammon, dominoes and pick-a-sticks. In the early 20th Century, East Ham police station was famous for its tug-of-war team, which won many medals at the National Police Championships and sent members on to represent Britain in the Commonwealth and Olympic Games.

And family traditions grew up. Constable George Greenhoff of Canning Town station was heroic in saving lives after the 1917 Silvertown Explosion (covered recently in East End History). He died of his injuries but was posthumously awarded the King’s Gallantry Medal. Son Edward was just eight years old when he lost his father, but went on to join the Force, serving 27 years before he retired in 1955.

The East End had a long history of policing. The river-borne Thames Division predated the land-based force by some years, being formed in 1798 to combat high levels of crime on the river, especially theft from ships lying at the docks.

One by one, the local East End stations were built. In 1886, Bethnal Green Police Station became the Divisional HQ for the area right out to Wanstead, Chigwell and Barkingside. Bethnal Green housed London’s Aliens Registration Office, which dealt with deserting foreign seamen. It made sense, as most would desert from their point of landing – the London docks. But in 1951, the office was moved to Piccadilly Place in the West End.

In 1862 a new Bow Police Station was sited opposite Bow Railway Station, with three pubs – the Bowry’s Arms, the Bird in Hand and the Sailmakers Arms – for neighbours. And in 1938, Bow became home to the largest police stable in London. As well as 20 horses, the stables had a full-time farrier, Thomas Melody, responsible for shoeing up to 60 animals a month. Along with local kids, the horses had to be evacuated when the station took a direct hit from a Luftwaffe bomb during World War 2.

Commercial Street Police Station in Shoreditch was always nicknamed ‘Comical Street’, maybe in part because of its odd shape. Its most famous detective was probably Fredrick George Abberline, pushed into the public gaze during the Whitechapel murders, and recently recreated by Johnny Depp in the movie From Hell. After retiring in 1890, Abberline went to the US, and work for the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

On 28 May 1897, Limehouse Police Station opened for business; the next day, the Limehouse men supervised the grand opening of the Blackwall Tunnel. All went well until a Superintendent Beard was thrown from his horse, breaking his arm.

And there is more, much more. There were the Dagenham coppers involved in smuggling in the 1840s and transported to Australia; the Barking policemen’s annual walking race to Southend, only abandoned in the 1980s when the traffic got too heavy; and the handcarts used to carry injured people (and drunks) to a place of recovery.

It’s all a long way from the high-tech policing of modern London. Some things may have changed for the better, but the old fabric, and the colour, is gone for good. ‘I was inspired to write this book because no one had written about the social history of local policing before,’ says David. ‘Many of the old police stations in this part of London have been sold for residential or commercial use. But they house a wealth of memories of the generations of officers who have served our boroughs.’

Behind the Blue Lamp: Policing North and East London by Peter Kennison and David Swinden is published by Coppermill Press, ISBN: 0954653408