The press began to report increased protest meetings among gas workers. At one of these, for example: Will Thorne said 'those who signed the agreements were cowards, tyrants and curs'.
On 2nd December the Union asked for the removal of three retort house workers at Vauxhall who had signed the agreements and on 4th December the Board received a resolution which the Union had sent to the daily papers. It read: - That in the opinion of this meeing ...men who have signed the bonus scheme brought out by Mr. Livesey whom we look upon as blacklegs to our Society, is condemned by us as unjust, unfair and must be resisted and that all the men in the South Metropolitan Gas Works are justified in giving in their notices forthwith, until the same be abolished and the said men removed from the works and that a copy be sent to the Directors'
The next day a correction to the resolution was sent out by the union, it should have read "or the said men".
By noon on 5th December 2,000 notices had been handed in. It must be made clear - and indeed was vital to Livesey's arguments - that this was not actually a strike, although it is always described as such. 'Strike' is a convenient shorthand term to described what happened. Under the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act it was, of course, illegal for gasworkers to strike and so it was necessary for them to give a week's notice to terminate their employment and so the employers had a week's notice of cessation of work. The employers could further argue - and did - that there was no need for them to negotiate with the union as men had legitimately and legally left their jobs and they had legally and legitimately filled .hem with new workers. The fact that the men had all left together was unfortunate but irrelevant.
The men leaving the works were paid the lump sum due to them on their superannuation payments and it was on this that most of them lived in the coming weeks.
As they left the works a force of replacement labour was marched in under heavy police escort and with some drama.
The Union believed that the strike had been forced on them and published their manifesto which explicitly stated that the bonus scheme was designed to curtail the liberty of their members.
As the new men marched in the works were picketed. To some extent the old men had sabotaged what they had left behind. Four days earlier it had been reported that "unionists' had broken into a store at Greenwich and thrown blankets into the Creek. It was remembered later that a lobby had been set on fire at East Greenwich and equipment left set to give the maximum amount of leakage. An effigy of Livesey was burnt outside the Pilot - a pub just outside the East Greenwich gates.
Substitute labour had been recruited over previous weeks. Some of the new men had come from areas like Cambridge and Sittingbourne where gas workers traditionally spent the summer and were areas of recruitment in normal times. Indeed the Company claimed that it was to some extent recruiting normally to cover a winter shortfall of labour. South Met. had sent out recruiting agents to many other areas and men came to London looking for work having either heard of the vacancies themselves or having been sent by relieving officers. Agents held meetings of unemployed men to recruit them as workers. For instance at Ramsgate where the meeting was followed by a letter of complaint from the local gasworks manager - his stokers had all been signed up by South Met.
The use of 'free labour' in this dispute has been widely described. It is important to note that these replacement men who marched into the South Met. works in December 1889 were not necessarily adherants to the 'free labour' movement as described by its' activists like Collison. John Saville in Trade Unions and Free Labour emphasises that free labourers were 'all those who wished to make their own independent contract with their employers regardless of the trade-union position' Many of these men (like those at Ramsgate) probably knew nothing about the issues in the South Met. dispute and only hoped to better their own positions.
Some accounts of the strike refer to labour being recruited by - "labour agents'. Some of these were just South Met. officers who had been seconded to find substitute labour in various parts of the country. Others were independent contractors. The most prominent Free Labour activist in South Met., C.Z.Burrows, who was Vice President of the Free Labour Association in 1896 had worked for South Met. as a blacksmith since 1883.
It is not necessarily true that because new men were recruited to strike break that they were conscious strike breakers - or that they understood the issues involved in the strike, which were not straightforward. Some years later, John Burns talking to a mass meeting about free labour, said that Livesey 'dropped them like a hot potato and it seems that some men recruited through "labour agents' were sometimes those classified by some as 'undesirables'. Speakers from Union platforms complained, among others, about a contingent from Birmingham who had come for work, not been taken on and then proceeded to cause trouble. Police court reports list a number of convictions on drunk and disorderly charges among sixteen-year-olds with Birmingham addresses. These convictions were all in the Rotherhithe area and the Union claimed this as the 'undesirable element'. The Company would not have taken on sixteen-year-olds for retort house work and it is difficult to know what these young men could done which would have shocked Rotherhithe.
Union pickets had some success in persuading some of this replacement labour to go home by offering to pay fares but the press carried other stories of men who had come enormous distances to South Met. and not been taken on. Some of these men were taken to the local poor law institutions and to police cells.
Will Thorne and other Union leaders were not in London at the start of the South Met. dispute. Industrial action in Mancester required their presence and at the same time provided a background to press stories which gave a picture of escalating industrial action throughout the country. Such stories could only lead to increased pressure from managements like South Met. determined to stay in 'control' in the workplace.
Seige conditions prevailed in South Met. works. Replacement labour learnt the work, were fed and bedded by management and were paid a bonus for it. Rumours soon began to spread that they were mutinous, starving, and infested with lice and disease. Some men were injured through inexperience. Heavy fog and freezing conditions meant demand for gas was high. Pressure and quality fell and stories of how 'Jumbo' the giant gas holder at East Greenwich was pumped full of air to reassure the public, spread. 'Public concern' was expressed by the press concentrating on the supply of gas.
The Times felt that "a majority of people regard this strike as unreasonable and tyrannical". and they pointed out difficulties which, they said, the public had in sympathising with a striking workforce which were well paid and had downed tools to inconvenience the public on a point of principle. Other press comments reflect a mix of views about both strike and scheme The Standard had little difficulty in putting forwal a conventional view which agreed with the Times' 'The Directors of the South Metropolitan Gas Company are doing their duty in determining to resist this demand" and the Daily News was equally quick to condemn the Union; "the unions will do themselves more harm than the employers' . But the Daily Chronicle was also quick to condemn the 'leftward' ideas in the profit sharing scheme; 'Mr. Livesey should leave well alone and keep his profit sharing scheme for consumption at a Toynbee Hall meeting'. The Star however offered a more detailed critique of the scheme - in an Editorial of 5th December they pointed out that the cost of gas is mainly based on wage and coal costs. Coal prices were out of the control of gas company workers, and therefore could not be influenced by them to bring gas prices down and raise their bonus. On the other hand if their wages rose, gas prices would rise and their bonus would be affected. They saw the whole scheme as an attack on the union and 'wish the gasmen every success in defeating an impudent attempt to impose upon them' . Predictably more press outlets shared the views of the Times rather than that of the Star - as in St. James' Gazette 'we hope that the general public will support the gas company '.
The trade press was able to offer more detailed criticism of Livesey and the scheme. Gas World - ever against Livesey - was now quick to condemn the profit sharing scheme describing it as 'specious' and Livesey's behaviour as 'machiavelism'. They said that the officers in the besieged works were being fed on lobsters. Other critics, however, had also pointed out the supply of beer going into the works for thirsty men - despite Livesey's well known temperance advocacy.
Local papers were less eager to criticise gas workers who could well be purchasers of their papers and local authority voters. South London Press described the strike committee as 'a fine intelligent body of men' and ran a flattering profile of Will Thorne together with a picture. South London Press also reported a request of Livesey's for help with board and lodgings for replacement workers to a local workhouse. The reply was 'do you think that this is a common lodging house' and indeed the Vice-chairman of the Lambeth Board of Guardians was currently speaking on gas worker platforms.
Activists in local political parties gave some verbal support. Kennington Liberals had, in June, passed a resolution of support for the gas workers and thi,s was followed by Dulwich and Penge Liberals who passed a resolution against police brutality towards strikers.
In order to support the strikers The Star was urging working class consumers to burn large amounts of gas in order to help deplete supplies. They also suggested that ratepayers be encouraged to summon the Company for an inadequate gas supply. This move was attempted in Bermondsey where a deputation to the local vestry was led by Harry Quelch, the SDF activist. He urged that body to sue the Gas Company for breach of contract by reason of the poor quality of the gas. He was backed by a Vestryman, Dr.Esmonde, who said that the poor light was seriously affecting the eyesight of his patients (laughter). It was decided that the Vestry should write to the Company concerning this breach of contract. It was however, then pointed out by officers that they had no formal contract with the Company - only an 'understanding' and that any sueing would have to be done by the County Council.
It is, therefore, probable that the gas workers enjoyed considerable support in South London and where local authorities needed to look to their support as local residents. Gas Companies need the support of their shareholders. Local authorities need their voters.
The 'other' London Gas Companies (including some more readily described as suburban) met again at the Cannon Street Hotel on 17th November with the Union leadership. This meeting concluded with a large measure of agreement - so much so in fact that the Gas Workers' manifesto published on 7th December was able to say ' they would always be indebted to the kind consideration shown in every possible shape by the 'other companies' and in particular by H.E.Jones, Chairman of the Commercial Company, who they quoted as having said to them; 'your interests are our interests; we cannot do without you.' While the Union 'devoutly wished for the peaceful working of the men so admirably put by the Chairman at the Cannon Street Hotel'.
Jones himself wrote to the Times on 9th December " to point out the benefits that Livesey had brought to gas workers in the past and regretting what was obviously a misunderstanding on all sides. What the Union should have, he said, was 'attention and respect' and he pressed the right of the men to combine. This was followed on 31st December by another letter from Jones who was now 'overwhelmed by the virtues of the strike committee' . Obviously both the 'other companies' and the Union were anxious that the dispute should not spread beyond South Met. Commercial Company had never been at loggerheads with South Met. in the way that Gas Light and Coke had been and it may well have been that H.E.Jones hoped to effect some sort of reconciliation between both parties. In any case he was concerned that his own company, which did not have the sort of reserves that South Met. did to spend on strike breaking, did not involve itself in an expensive dispute. The Union must have been concerned that places in other works were kept open to provide alternative employment for its men. In the depth of winter other London companies could well be in need of experienced stokers.
Nonetheless the amount of goodwill between these 'other companies' and the Union is surprising considering the strike was taking place only a few miles away on the other side of the river. As the gas supply produced by South Met. began to improve the Union began to flounder and in its published statements began to modify the terms on which men would return to the works. The Company continued to ignore them - nointing out that the men had left legally and that there was no dispute. Men could return if they wished; when vacancies arose.
Throughout the dispute a series of would-be mediators emerged, all dismissed as meddlers by Robert Morton some months later. Two local Members of Parliament, Causton and Beaufoy, put themselves forward and at the same time a group of non-conformist ministers approached the Company, followed by a local Church of England vicar. Towards the end of December a rather more persistent approach was made by two members of the Labour Association - the organisation concerned to promote the cause of profit sharing. Anxious that their cause might be thrown into disrepute by too close a proximity to strike breaking they hoped to find a solution. However, Ivimey and Greening were no more successful than the churchmen.
It must be kept in mind that although the Gas Workers' dispute was given most space in press headlines at the time, they were supported by a concurrent strike of the Coal Porters Union under the leadership of Michael Henry. This was a potentially bigger affair because the Coal Porters covered much more industry than the Gas Workers and could paralyse more generally. Through them the dispute spread to the Tyne where Henry went to persuade colliers to black ships bound for South Met. works in the Thames and through this the Sailors and Firemen's Unions were involved. Ships on the river were picketed and some crews taken off. This part of the dispute involved a Conference at the Mansion House with Cardinal Manning and other 'self appointed meditators". Livesey dismissed this Conference, saying that such people had no understanding of the dispute nor of the conditions prevailing in industry.'
Another concurrent strike took place at the Government owned Arsenal gas works. The men came out on the eight hours issue and led to questions about their conditions being asked in Parliament.
The Gas Workers Union were aware that they could win with the help of other unions and as early as 1st. December speakers on their platforms asked 'whether the trade unions of England would allow them to be defeated?' ' By 21st December they had put out a statement saying that while they could not accept the agreements 'we cannot forget the attachment that we feel to our old employers ... and. nothing would give us greater satisfaction than a return to our previous relations '. While the leadership made statements like this to management the kind of rhetoric emanating from mass demonstrations was beginning to sound increasingly' hollow. One such speaker threatened Livesey's life, to be condemned by all sides.
By 25th December speakers were threatening to bring out the men at the Beckton works. They did not do so and once other branches of the Union did not come out in sympathy there was no hope that South Met. men could win the dispute. South Met. was making gas for their customers; the Union members were all out of work - all they could do was to try and persuade Livesey to take them back. 'Mr. Livesey had said if the strikers went ' back to work they have to go back for twelve hours - they had come out for eight hours and would go back for eight hours and the dignity of Englishmen would not let them do anything else. They were not going to creep and crawl to Livesey for work... ' This is all fine and stirring stuff. Even Will Thorne must have known that they had not come out for eight hours but for the right to organise - and that they were in fact already creeping and crawling to Livesey for work.
Other trade unions had not really rallied round. A meeting of unions at Mile End advised the Gas Workers to go to the London Trades Council and get them to sort out some kind of settlement. The Hatters (800 in number) agreed to a weekly levy of 1/- per man and the Glass Blowers pledged £5 a week. This help was intended to keep the families of 3,000 gas workers. Hugh Brown said that; 'he could not blind himself to the fact that trade unionists throughout England had not rallied to give them aid' and Harry Quelch said he knew why.. 'the trade unions had too long been the aristocracy of Labour and cared no more for the Gas Workers in their struggle.... than if they had been the red Indians. '
Nevertheless the rhetoric continued 'The public does not seem to grasp the meaning of the strike ... they did not want more money ... the fight was for liberty to combine and freedom'.
Losing sympathy on all sides, the Gas Workers went to the London Trades Council who co-ordinated a meeting between them, the Coal Porters, and the Sailors and Firemen. Some sort of agreement was drawn up. The strike was called off. They said that the Company had agreed to return to an eight hour system and to take men back if and when vacancies occured. The Union added that they hoped the Company would take back men with families first. The effect of this was lost with Livesey's letter to The Times explaining that a ballot had been held at the various works on the subject of the shift system and that men at most works had voted to go back onto the eight hour day. If the twelve hour system was to remain it was because the workers had voted for it themselves. He was quite happy, he added, to take back old workers - he had indeed already taken many back. Unfortunatly spring was coming and vacancies would be few.
If this was an agreement it was of the most humiliating sort. Livesey did not have to agree to anything - he had already implemented most of its clauses, or said he had. The strike had gained nothing but a lot of destitute ex-gas workers. The strike headquarters now became a welfare agency distributing charity to those without work. It was soon to be visited by Livesey with a donation. The Union had instigated the strike with more rhetoric than finance. The 'big names', men who had led successful strikes and becoming known as Labour leaders - Burns, Tillett, even Thorne had kept well away. The strike had been entirely run by local branch members. They had come out on an issue not readily understood by the general public and not easily sympathised with even by people who were committed trade unionists. They had engaged in strike action involving thousands of workers needing strike pay with virtually no reserves and dependent on other gas workers and street collections. Because they depended on other members of the union remaining in work they were not able to call them out and cripple the entire industry in London. They had intitially prevaricated, not come out while the Company was unprepared. They had given the Company time to prepare for a lengthy strike and then given a week's notice. They had also taken on the only gas company with any reserves - and those reserves were very considerable. They had continued to persuade striking workers that they might win, even though the situation was hopeless, with a degree of drama and rhetoric that had no relation to reality.
Their optimism and naivety was astounding and a contributory reason to the decline of the union within the next few years must be the disillusionment of ordinary workers with them.