I realize that this is the second blog article in a row that makes significant mention of strikes and unionism. But, it’s impossible to write about the history of the Isle of Dogs, without doing so: the Island has been staunchly working class since the docks opened at the start of the 1800s, and was never home to a monied class until recently.
Morton’s, manufacturer of canned jam, pickles and other food, was for many years one of the largest employers on the Island (other than the docks, that is). Their main premises occupied a large amount of space in north Millwall, between West Ferry Rd, ‘the Walls’, the river and Cuba St. They also had a factory on the other side of West Ferry Rd, connected by a tunnel. A depot was located in Cubitt Town on London Wharf. In 1885, Morton workers formed the football team that would later be known as Millwall FC. Further expansion involved the opening of a herring cannery in Lowestoft, where they are still operating today.
A large firm with a long industry, thus, and one of much importance to Islanders over the years. It was formed by John Thomas Morton of Aberdeen in 1849. He started business as a provision merchant, eventually building up a large canned and preserved foods business. When he died in 1897, the business was taken over by his sons, and became known as C & E Morton Ltd.
Traditionally, the company hired large numbers of women. Preparing preserved and canned foods was something that generally did not require the strength of a man, and women could be hired for lesser wages than men. Although the wages were not great, they provided valuable extra income for families whose men were probably working in the docks or in a factory.
In March 1914, however, the company hired 4 young girls aged between 14 and 15 – in the tin-box making section – for less than the 18s to 20s a week that skilled women could expect to earn. Suspecting a management ploy to reduce wages in general, the women demanded that the girls be moved to a department where no skilled work was involved. The management refused and 300 women walked out on strike, followed shortly after by other workers from other parts of the company.
Looking for union help, 800 women joined the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) while the men joined the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers Union. On 28 March a procession was organised from Millwall to Trafalgar Square.
The marching procession sang “strike songs”, one to the tune of ‘Every nice girl loves a sailor’ with the following words:
Messrs. Morton, down at Poplar,
Don’t you think it a disgrace
To employ little children
Women workers to displace;
Many years we’ve faithful served you,
And your profits have been great,
So the reason is quite clear
Why we’re standing idle here
At your gate, at your gate.
For we know that when the children
Do our work for half our pay
You won’t hesitate a moment
But will send us all away;
And your boxes will be soldered
At the nearest infant schools,
So we’ve all gone out on strike,
For the prospect we don’t like,
We’re not fools, we’re not fools.
Now then, girls, all join the Union,
Whatever you may be,
In pickles, jam or chocolate,
Or packing pounds of tea;
For we all want better wages,
And this is what we say:
We’re out to right the wrong,
And now we shan’t be long,
Hip Hurrah! Hip Hurrah!
Many meetings were held outside the Morton factory gates.
These meetings frequently enjoyed speeches from suffragettes and well known prominent women of the time. The following photo shows actress and acting manager Lena Ashwell (centre, light coloured fur coat) after she had addressed the strikers. On her right (our left) is suffragette and actress Eva Moore, and on her left is trade unionist and women’s rights campaigner Mary McArthur.
The strike lasted twelve days before the management, overwhelmed by the public support the strikers received, and embarrassed by the media coverage showing the girls singing and dancing in the streets, caved in and agreed to the strikers’ demands.