Roots of Radicalism


A story of British Workers struggle


HISTORY has shown that, given the circumstances, British workers will organise and protest vigorously against anything which threatens their interests and those of the Nation as a whole. Some notable examples being the dockworkers involved with the British Brothers League at the turn of the century, the Smithfield Market porters in the 1960's, and the white workers of Imperial Typewriters in the 1970's.

Another notable, though lesser-known manifestation of British workers voicing concern over their rights and working conditions occurred last century. It is not clear whether the protest against the subsequent importation of foreign labour was race-orientated as the real ethnic origins of the strike-breakers was not clear. However, it is well known that many Jews of German origin had made their way to Tyneside and were to become known to local workers as "Abraham's Devils".

In 1871 a strike of great significance took place on the North East coast. Together with the famous miners strike of 1844 it illustrates the social struggles arising from the impact of the industrial revolution. In all industries at that time hours were long and conditions of work generally deplorable by modern standards. In many trades during the decade 1860 to 1870 a demand for the Nine Hours day had arisen and among the building workers had already been won. In Newcastle it took the masons a long hard strike of eleven months to win the boon for Tyneside. Already in 1866 the Tyneside engineers had agitated for such a concession; but a sudden trade depression had killed the movement.

Among engineers, Tyneside was considered a blackspot at this time. Although on the Clyde engineers hours were 57 per week, and in London 58½, on the Tyne they were 60. This comparative backwardness can be partly attributed to the weakness of the trade union movement.


During the sixties there had been a remarkable expansion of the iron shipbuilding industry on Tyneside, and thousands of workers unused to trade unionism had been brought into engineering, and although at a later date Tyneside was to become well organised in a trade union sense, at that time barely 20% of engineers were in trade unions. But the workers of the area were traditionally militant, and they were uninfluenced by the conciliatory tactics then prevalent in most craft unions.

It was in Sunderland that the first moves were made under the leadership of Andrew Gourlay, President of the local branch of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. Gourlay was a striking personality, long prominent in trade union struggles. Victimized in the fifties for trade union activities in Crewe he had moved to the North East and started to work in Palmers of Jarrow, where he was the leader of the workers during the lock-out of 1865, and the agitation for the nine hours day in the following year. Sacked by Palmers for his trade union activity Gourlay, after a spell of unemployment, obtained work in Sunderland.


In 1870 the Newcastle "Central District Committee" of the A.S.E. had once again discussed the Nine Hours Day, but taken no action. Suddenly on April 1st, 1871, under Gourlay's leadership, without the knowledge or sanction of the Executive Council, all Sunderland engineers came out on strike for the Nine Hours Day. In spite of being condemned "for their hasty action" by the District Committee, and contrary to the expectations of the Executive Council who were for arbitration and compromise, within a month the Sunderland engineers won a complete victory, with their full demands satisfied. The Sunderland strike was a remarkable piece of organisation and though Gourlay never became a national trade union figure he had shown qualities of leadership which he was content to employ on a local scale.

It was clear that a victory in Sunderland would stimulate the movement in other areas of the North East and accordingly on April 8th while the Sunderland strike was still in progress the master engineers of the whole district met in Newcastle to plan for a united resistance to the men's demands. Sir William Armstrong, who played a vital part in the development of the Tyneside engineering industry, was the leader of the employers.

Simultaneously as a result of deputations from Sunderland the Newcastle engineers were on the move. As the Sunderland strike was nearing a successful conclusion on April 29th an historic meeting was held at the Westgate Inn, Newcastle, consisting of elected representatives from practically all the engineering shops of the Tyne to plan the formation of a Nine Hours League.

Learning from the experiences of Sunderland, the Nine Hour League embraced unionists and non-unionists alike and to all intents and purposes was a temporary Trade Union with almost one hundred per cent membership. John Burnett, the secretary of one of the Newcastle branches of the A.S.E., and later General Secretary of the whole organisation, was chosen President.

Within a few days the engineering industry of Tyneside was in the grips of a strike in which 7,500 men struggled for nearly five months until the employers conceded the Nine Hour Day. The most spectacular feature of the strike was the attempt to break it by the use of imported foreign labour. Here is James Jeffries, the historian of the industry, in his work The Story of the Engineers, describing what happened:-

"It was in August that the employers started to introduce foreign workers into the shops. In an effort to prevent them from meeting the strikers they were lodged in the different factories and the schools belonging to Sir William Armstrong were closed to the children and converted into barracks for the foreigner. Tenants living in Sir William's property received notice to quit if they did not return to work; the various foremen and clerks who would consent to the operations were sworn in as special constables, and preparations were made to guard the different factories much the same as if they were convict establishments."

"Despite the fact that violence against the foreign workers was to all intents and purposes confined to speeches, the employers used the new Criminal Law. Amendment Act to intimidate the men. So wide were it's terms that one young man was fined half-a-crown for 'looking at some foreigners smoking', and Margaret Monaghan, aged thirty three, got 21 days imprisonment for 'hooting'! - the Mayor remarking 'that if women take the part of men, and he might say, would make themselves men, they could not wonder if they received the same as men'."

"The work among the foreigners despite the employers precautions, was pursued to such effect that on August 30 occurred a 'mutiny' of 120 of the Germans employed in Armstrong's factory. All the efforts of the heads of the firm were insufficient to quell the disturbances; they promised that the Germans should be allowed to smoke when they chose; that in fact they should have everything but the nine hours, which the Germans had by this time begun to shout for. The Nine Hour League took advantage of this state of affairs and the next day shipped off nearly the whole of the 120 .. . amid such a scene of excitement as is seldom witnessed'. And at a mass meeting held on the Town Moor on September 2, 'a large quantity of foreigners were on the platform expressing by signs their desire to go back to their own country'."

The strike was successful and before long the nine hour day was nationally recognised in the engineering industry. A sideline of the strike was the setting up by some of the men of a co-operative workship. The Ouseburn Engine Works was opened and 300 men were employed there by the end of the strike on the nine-hour system.

Decorative plate produced to commemorate the engineers victory.