How Barking and Dagenham workers played vital role in birth of trade unions

Dagenham workers line up for strike pay

Dagenham workers line up for strike pay - Credit: Archant

Barking and Dagenham has a long and illustrious history associated with the trade union movement.

Will Thorne

Will Thorne - Credit: Archant

Although much of that recent relationship has been linked to the Ford motor company in Dagenham, which gave rise to Ron Todd in his role as the leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, the area’s links go back much further.

Ford workers during a strike in 1970

Ford workers during a strike in 1970 - Credit: Archant

Now, to remind workers of what trade unions have done for the working population, Barking and Dagenham Council’s archive and local studies centre at Valence House Museum will be holding a session on trade unions on November 16.

The George known as The Three Lamps

The George known as The Three Lamps - Credit: Archant

Clare Sexton, from the museum, said: “The reason we chose trade unions was because we want to show how the working conditions of local people have changed and improved, as well as reflecting on contemporary issues and threats today. We also want to raise awareness about the rich heritage of the borough and its people, as well as the collections held at Valence House Museum.

“Barking and Dagenham has a rich heritage and numerous historical sites, buildings and collections waiting to be discovered and explored.

“Pioneering trade unionists held meetings at the lamp-standard outside the George Inn at the bottom of Broadway, Barking, known as the ‘Three Lamps’.

“Will Thorne and Bill Watkinson, both workers at Beckton Gas Works, were particularly adept at rousing speeches that inspired their fellow workers at Barking.”

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Clare said the two men used slogans like ‘Educate, Agitate and Organise’.

Many have argued that these gasmen ‘lit the flame’ that led to the formation of the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers (NUGWGL) in 1889.

It later amalgamated to become the National Union of General Workers and then the GMB (Britain’s General Union).

Women also played their part as girls from the Barking Jute Works (known for wearing clogs, shawls and eating jam sandwiches, as well as drunken brawling) went on strike for a week in October 1889 with support from Bill Watkinson and the NUGWGL.

Further militancy was shown in the 1970s.

Clare said: “Workers from the Ford Motor Company factory in Dagenham held strike meetings at Leys open-air swimming pool during the Nine-Week Strike in 1971.

This particular strike brought production practically to a standstill.

These strikes went on to impact international industrial relations and this sort of militancy has not been seen since.”

And women machinists from Ford Dagenham were recently recognised for campaigning for equal pay at the Women of the Year 2013 awards and they were also the inspiration for the film Made in Dagenham.

Early attempts to organise workers into trade unions failed.

The Beckton Gas Works opened in 1870, on what had previously been marshland on the boundary of Barking and East Ham, and it provided employment for more than 1,000 men from Barking.

Most of the workers at Beckton were classed and paid as unskilled labour, despite the degree of practical skill, strength and endurance needed, according to Clare, and the stokers fed the furnaces with shovels throughout the day and night in temperatures of 55C.

She added: “The hard physical labour and the long periods of absence from home were a grievance, while the Sunday shifts were especially disliked.

“In 1872, the ringleaders of a strike at Beckton Gas Works were imprisoned for conspiracy. However at a large open air meeting on 21 March 1889, Will Thorne, managed to persuade his fellow workers of the value of forming a union.”

Similar meetings were then held at Canning Town, Barking and East Ham, resulting in the formation of the gas workers’ union. Clare said: “In the days before microphones and amplifying equipment, a soapbox and a powerful voice were the first requirements for pulling a crowd and the organiser whose rousing speeches inspired the men at Barking was Bill Watkinson.

“Meetings were held around the lamp-standard in front of the George Inn.

“Will Thorne and Bill Watkinson were both members of the Social Democratic Federation.

“Their theoretical aim was that employees should take over their own industries, but the practical goals of the union surrounded the introduction of an eight hour day and extra pay for working on Sunday.”

In June 1889, Frederick Beales, the engineer then in charge at Beckton, conceded to the demands for a reduction from twelve to eight hour days for the stokers without further strife.

To find out more about the history of the trade union movement in Barking & Dagenham, visit Valence House Museum in Becontree Avenue, Dagenham on November 16 at 2pm.