The 1865 Strike
Around the 26th of January 1865, George England’s workforce went on strike. The Times of Jan 30th gave an account of the strike and the reasons it had been called:-
“STRIKE of ENGINEERS – On Saturday between 200 and 300 engineers employed at Mr George England’s Hatcham Ironworks, New-cross, Deptford were out “on strike” not for any increase in pay, but in consequence of what are considered very stringent rules regulating the working of the establishment. Prior to the “strike” taking place meetings of the men were held, at which a deputation consisting of seven of heir number was appointed to wait upon Mr England, with a request that the rule which makes a workman able to be discharged for losing one hour and a half’s time should be altered to the losing of a day’s time, without giving a reasonable excuse, and if so discharged, to receive the full amount of wages due; secondly, that the weeks work being ended at half past four o’clock on Saturdays, payment of wages should commence at that time, and not half an hour later; thirdly that instead of losing the hour and a half’s pay for being absent from work any half hour during the week, it will be altered to losing four hours in the first five days of the week, or any time before breakfast on Saturday; and fourthly , being now greatly inconvenienced by only having half an hour for dinner, to work in accordance with the original rule of the establishment, from 6a.m. to 6p.m. the first five days of the week, and from 6 a.m. until half past twelve on Saturdays. The deputation having had an interview with Mr England and the alterations named above not acceded to, the men have taken their discharge”
On February 1st an account appeared in the Bristol Times with England obviously giving the press his view of the strike and how he had been dealing with it:-
We remarked in our impression of Saturday on the extremes to which artisans sometimes carry their demands upon employers, regardless of capital or labour. Another instance has just occurred, which must cause all who wish the working classes well to deplore the obstinacy and unreasonableness of some of their actions. There is an extensive establishment in the metropolis known as Hatcham Iron Works, conducted by Messrs England. They have a large number of men in their employ, and a code of rules has been in existence for 25 years for the regulation of the establishment. Some of the men have taken umbrage at these rules, and a “demand” was submitted to the firm by a deputation of seven persons… A member of the firm kindly received the deputation, and pointed out to them that the rules had been in force for the past 25 years, but to avoid the appearance of any desire to act arbitrarily, the firm were willing to allow a committee of workmen to consider the case of any man who felt the rules pressed unduly on him, the decision of the committee to be binding upon both parties. It was further explained that the men were allowed to cease work at four and to receive their wages for the whole day, the only condition being that they should clear the workshops, which should last them until half past four. The half hour to dinner was arranged to allow the men to come in a little later in the winter mornings, the employers derived no benefit from the change. The deputation expressed themselves satisfied with the manner in which they had been met, and Mr England invited them to take a glass of sherry, which they did. The deputation returned to the workmen, stated the result of their mission and mentioned the manner in which they had been treated. They were met with such a howl of disapprobation, accused of selling themselves for a glass of sherry, and the meeting broke up in disorder. Another document was sent to the proprietors of the works announcing that the men would only return to their labour on the condition of the whole of their demands being complied with, and those who were unwilling to strike were intimidated…
In the February 4th issue of the Kentish Mercury contains a prolonged account of the current position both by George England & Co. and their workers. Whereas the George England account of receiving the deputation of seven “of the most respectable of the workmen” shows George explaining to them how the rules came about and why they are right. There is also a letter from one of those seven (John Bawden) who states “As soon as we entered his office we were informed that we had all made ourselves liable to three months imprisonment for heading a lot of blackguards. After standing for two hours and a half in his presence, he positively refused to comply with the minor portions of our grievance”. England had proposed a committee be set up of the various departments “ one from the smithing department, including hammermen, one from the boiler making department, including assistants one from the fitting department, including assistants, one from the machinery department including assistants and one from the labourers department”, for persons to appeal against the operation of any of the rules. The view of the John Bawden on this was “The deputation did not think the men would continue working, well knowing from past experience the character of Mr England, that should the jury decide against him, they would be discharged at the first opportunity, and further, what workman would feel comfortable in a position where he had to decide against his master? The workmen believing that it is not his place to decide on whom the master shall keep on, or discharge, refused to accept his proposition”.
Some interesting light is shed on the departure of John Cleminson, his manager at this difficult time. As a nice touch the current apprentices, gave him” an address and a handsome breakfast and tea service” which was reported in the papers. Another striker, G.Crossman, who signs himself as ‘one of the roughs’! writes “we the roughs are not the only ones tired of his tyrannical proceedings, I wish to inform you that the Foreman and Manager, who have been in their situations some years , have also left his employ”.
England & Co. respond “ Mr Cleminson (the late Manager),Mr Miller (the timekeeper)and Mr G.England jun, who were all present , can bear testimony that these remarks (their previous statement) together with our previous statements are all substantially correct. Mr Cleminson, though present, was too unwell to take any part in the discussion, and the allusion to that gentleman resigning his situation, which he has filled with credit for eight or nine years, as in any way sympathy with the movement of the men is totally untrue and a great libel upon him. We are extremely sorry to say that he has been compelled to resign in consequence of long and serious illness under the advice of a very able medical man, whom we ourselves have consulted, respecting him, and we regret to say nothing but a period of rest will restore him to his previous condition.”.
Cleminson would go on to be a locomotive inspector by the 1871 census, and to be Locomotive Superintendent of the Iquique and Moria Railway soon after, so in modern parlance he may have been suffering from stress. It is intriguing that George England himself had consulted the same doctor.
Two weeks into the strike and the battle lines hardened. George England had also started to lose men to other employers.
A general meeting of the men on strike lately employed at the Hatcham Iron Works, New-cross, to the number of 250, was held on Tuesday (7th Feb) evening at the Crown and Anchor Tavern, Old Kent Road, for the purpose of receiving a report from the strike committee. Mr Trumper occupied the chair.
Mr Banden, the secretary reported that of nearly 300 men who had struck 100 had obtained employment in other establishments. Not one of those who had struck had gone back to Mr Englands employ, and that gentleman who had been in the North of England for the purpose of obtaining men, had returned unsuccessful, not being able to induce any men to work under his arbitrary rules. The various engineering, boiler-making, and other shops in the iron trade were liberally subscribing in aid of the men on strike, and he hoped the committee would be able to pay a good dividend at the end of the week. The society men out who were receiving strike pay from their various societies had generously relinquished any share in the general subscription in favour of the non-society men who had struck. Mr England had only that morning summoned one of his late workmen before a magistrate at Greenwich Police-court, for breach of contract…but the magistrate…dismissed the summons. Mr England having to pay the costs…the committee said they would test the feeling of the meeting by the following resolution…“That this meeting of Mr Englands late workman declare their determination not to resume work in his establishment until he has modified his arbitrary rules”. This resolution was carried unanimously, amid loud cheering.
By February 19th George England is reported as changing his stance slightly, but wanting to pick and choose who he took back. The result of this backfired and the strike continued:-
On Saturday afternoon week (11th Feb) the committee…received a communication from Mr England, to the effect that he had withdrawn his old rules, and that he had caused the following notice to be posted up:-“The whole of the objectionable rules are withdrawn. Every one employed on those works is expected to conduct himself respectably, if he wishes to continue in the employment, G.England”. The committee were also informed that the gates of the factory would be opened at nine o’clock on Monday morning (13th Feb), and those of the workmen willing to resume their employment might do so. In accordance with this notice, about 200 of the men out of 300 who struck (the rest having obtained work at other establishments) presented themselves at the gates at nine o’clock, prepared to resume work, but to their great surprise they were refused admittance. After waiting about for some time a message was brought out from Mr England, and the men were requested to walk in singly and see Mr England. Mr England wished it to be understood that none of those whom he considered to have taken an active part in the strike should work again in the establishment. An general meeting of the men was held, when the extraordinary conduct of Mr England was taken into consideration and it was unanimously resolved that under the circumstances, no man should resume his employment until the gates were thrown open unreservedly to all willing to work, or the intentions of Mr England were more definitely stated.
On Wednesday night (15th Feb) at eight o’clock a numerously attended meeting was held at the Crown and Anchor Tavern…to receive a report from the deputation appointed to wait upon Mr England…from the statements of Messrs Bowden, White and Lewis…it appeared that Mr England would only consent to receive each member singly, that he refused to discuss the matter amicably, and that although the most courteous language was used by each of the deputation, Mr England’s demeanour was most angry and excited, so much so that he shook his stick at White and ordered him to leave the premises… it was resolved that as Mr England had refused to come to any reasonable terms the strike should be continued.
Finally after five weeks George England had to back down, this report appeared in the Mar 4th edition of the South London Press:-
“Last night. ..a numerously attended meeting of the workmen recently employed by Mr G. England, proprietor of the Hatcham Iron Works, and who have been on strike for 5 weeks, against certain objectionable rules enforced by that gentleman, was held at the Crown and Anchor tavern, New Cross road, to receive a report from a deputation appointed to wait upon Mr England to ascertain if an amicable settlement of the dispute could be arrived at. The chair was occupied by Mr Trumper, who briefly alluded to the objects of the meeting. Mr. Bowden, the secretary, reported that Mr. England having consented to receive as a deputation Mr Allen, the secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, and Mr.Allen, of the Boiler Makers Society, of the district, an interview had taken place on that day, when a long discussion occurred between the deputation and Mr. England, who acceded to certain conditions for modifying the regulations, &c.
It was not considered advisable to communicate the result of the interview to that meeting, but the whole facts of the matter would be submitted to the executive of the Amalgamated Engineers, to be held on that evening, and if the terms acceded to by Mr. England were considered satisfactory, the sanction of the executive would be stated to an adjourned meeting of the workmen, to be held on this (Saturday) evening…The meeting was adjourned until this evening (Saturday), and it is generally expected that the terms agreed upon by Mr. England are such as will result in a termination of the strike.”
The strike was reported over, on 11th March. He had been forced to give way to their demands and give them the same conditions as were offered to other workers at John Penn & Sons and working for Rennie on railway construction. He had not only lost face, but in that six weeks it is reported, he lost half his workforce to other employers. Therefore the skill base he had worked so long to build up was decimated. In Cleminson, he had lost a capable manager.
Of the 20 locomotives he had under construction, only four were anywhere near completion. The SER, in trying to withdraw from the agreement with England, commissioned a report on the state of the locomotives, which still survives RAIL 635/296. It gives a unique insight into the state of Hatcham Iron Works immediately after the strike as well as the status of the locomotives under construction:-
Report on Engines building for the South Eastern Railway Co. at the works of Messrs G. England & Co.
The Workshops of Messrs England and Co. are sufficiently large and their arrangements is such that eight engines and tenders might be in progress of erection at one time. There is accommodation for the required number of fitters and workers for this purpose i.e. fifty to sixty.
The number of Engines in cause of erection is four, two of which have not had any work done to them for six months, of the other two, one is approaching completion and will probably be completed about the middle, and the other by the end of June: when if the same number of men are put to the former two engines they may be completed by the end of August or beginning of Sept.
The number of workers employed and present is about sixty, there are sometimes more and sometimes less and the men employed in most cases stay but a short time and either leave or are summarily discharged the reason assigned being usually incompetency: The consequence of this course is a continual influx of men, to whom the work is not familiar and little progress is thereby made.
For the remainder of the Engines not laid down for erection there is a considerable quantity done which may possibly amount to about 1/3 of the whole.
It lists also, the total number of locomotives started as being 20 (Nos 215-234).
So the workforce is reduced to a fifth of its previous levels, not a half and George England, without his manager Cleminson, is mismanaging a less skilled workforce. For the South Eastern Railway order the report gave them the insight to back out of the full order and just accept the four locomotives (Nos 215 to 218). These were handsome 2-4-0 locomotives with two 16” x 24” cylinders and 6ft driving wheels. They appeared as below on a letterhead of the time.
Though the workers were eventually persuaded back, the strike cost the company dear; an order for 20 locomotives for the South Eastern Railway was cancelled. This consisted of 14 of the ‘Cudworth’ 2-4-0 type plus 6 ‘express’ engines on which work had probably not started at the time. The SER accepted only four of the first 14. Of the remaining ten, two were sold to the Somerset & Dorset Railway, arriving on the line in full SER livery. The S&D paid £3500 each for them which was £1000 more than the SER were supposed to pay! The remaining eight were eventually sold to the Belgian West Flanders Railway, though possibly not until as late as 1868. (Some sources say two were sold to a railway in Italy, with only six going to Belgium).
A. R. Bennet, writing in 1907 gave the following opinion, the facts of which, as shown above are not entirely accurate and show his own attitudes to Trade Unions. “Owing to a strike at the works, which disorganised matters for many weeks, delivery could not be affected in the time agreed upon, besides which the company (the SER) found fault with the workmanship of some of the engines which had actually been delivered, with the result that they refused to accept those still on hand. This was a heavy blow for the firm, and one from which they never really recovered. They ultimately succeeded in disposing of all the engines, but at such a sacrifice that, after struggling on for a time, the firm was forced to discontinue business and to close the works. The men, many of whom belonged to Lancashire, and especially to St Helens, and were settled with their families in the neighbourhood of the works, had then bitter cause to regret the strike which had brought about the catastrophe, as very few of them could find employment in London. The locomotive industry in London laboured under sufficient disadvantage without having a trouble of this nature to contend against, especially when, in addition to paying higher wages and higher rates, coal, materials and finished goods all had to be carted. Thus the locomotive – like the shipbuilding industry, was driven out of London by the short-sighted policy of those to whom it spelt bread and butter”.
Tagged as: George England
Share this post: